Finger-lickin’ good

At a time when the very notion of an issue-free rock band seems to be on the skids, it’s beautiful to witness the durability of a group whose sole ambition is providing a serious party.

“You can’t [save the world] by singing about saving the world,” declares Southern Culture on the Skids lead singer Rick Miller, “but you can help the world have more fun.”

He’ll leave the unrest in Bosnia to more earnest artists. “I mean, I have my standing on political [issues], but that shouldn’t come into music,” Miller protests, promising instead: “I’ll preach about the beauty of day-old banana pudding.”

Not since the B-52s has a full-out dance band banked so successfully on its zany shtick, or provided such an open season for heedless, raunchy grooving. You could call their sound retro rockabilly surf.

If audience participation were measured in grease rather than sweat, North Carolina’s goofy darlings would ooze right to the top. Yes, Southern Culture members still pelt fans with fried chicken and/or Little Debbie snack cakes at every show. And they still list Chapel Hill as their permanent address. But that doesn’t mean the band hasn’t exercised the new muscle of their relatively recent major label status: For the better part of a decade (before releasing 1995’s Dirt Track Date on the heavy-hitting Geffen Records), the band would still be forced into panicky, 11th-hour hunts for open chicken joints, so expectant crowds wouldn’t be deprived of the finger-lickin’ confetti; now, the trio (fleshed out by drummer David Hartman and crimson-haired — often in a beehive — singer/guitarist Mary Huff) requires clubs to procure the bird beforehand.

It’s even in the contract.

To support Dirt Track Date, the group toured as many as 300 days a year. During European shows, surprisingly, references to such items as “voodoo Cadillacs” didn’t crash head-on into the cultural barriers one might expect.

“They get [Southern references] more than you’d think,” muses Miller. “And [since] rock ‘n’ roll is such a Southern institution, there goes with that a certain understanding of Southern things. It’s inevitable.”

But he’ll admit that some of the songs’ thematic nuances may slip past the foreign fans’ collective consciousness. The delicate aging process of a fine banana pudding, for example, might not receive its due appreciation overseas. But then again, from “Too Much Pork for Just One Fork” (the title of their 1990 release) to “Red Beans ‘n’ Reverb” (from the Flirting with Disaster soundtrack), food has always been a universal motif for the band.

“Everybody eats,” says Miller. “I don’t think you can go wrong writing about food. … [Plus] food lyrics are always good for some juicy double entendres.”

And then some. As much as he embraces the reckless abandon that the group inspires, he recalls a rather unsavory incident in which a woman with a broken leg made her way onstage and commenced masturbating with a piece of chicken.

“I mean, how do you push a woman with a broken leg offstage and not look like a jerk?” he wonders.

Following their intense Dirt Track Date touring schedule, the singer acknowledges he felt burned out. Low points rarely last long with this buoyant trio, however, and Miller’s disenchantment was brief: “After recovering [from post-tour exhaustion], I realized, where else could I find a job like this? You take some time off, then when you go back on tour, it’s all magic again.”

Recording their latest release helped put the singer back in the driver’s seat, sticky legs and all. Plastic Seat Sweat (Geffen, 1997) retains the hilarious irreverence of its predecessors, while adding a slightly harder edge and new instrumentation (horns, sitar, Hammond organ, banjo, and a .12-gauge shotgun, to be exact).

Miller is proud of Southern Culture’s firmly planted roots during the musically flighty ’90s, and he offers advice to young bands who don’t relish the thought of becoming yesterday’s news. “We’re lucky in that we’ve been around for so long that we’ve got a very diverse [fan base],” he points out, “from people upwards of 50 to young kids with pierced chins and stuff. We’re not too affected by trends. If you take your time, tour, don’t get too ambitious, you can build up a solid following.”

But if the trio’s not necessarily keeping up with the times, the times are definitely keeping up with them. Strains of Dirt Track Date’s “Camel Walk” (a song that has inspired marriage proposals from awestruck fans, says Miller) could recently be heard in the background of a TV-news clip about harassed female cadets at the Citadel.

How does Miller feel about such a dubious distinction? “I love seeing one of our songs in a place you’d never expect,” he offers, not sounding worried.

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