In today’s turbulent musical landscape, staying power is a rare thing. Bands come and go with the changing of the seasons, riding the wave of whatever musical trend is deemed marketable by the purveyors of pop culture. Others, however, manage to last just a little bit longer.
Approaching its 25th year as a band, Chapel Hill’s Southern Culture on the Skids is no fly-by-night outfit. Composed of Rick Miller (vocals, guitar), Dave Hartman (percussion) and Mary Huff (vocals, bass guitar), the group has evolved into a unique institution.
“We don’t know how to do anything else,” declares Miller. “It was a good time for us to come together when we did. It was a good time for music, and we bonded together quick and had some success early on, which helped us get off on the right foot. We’re just a hard-working touring band.”
The band—whose homespun blend of rockabilly, surf rock and country has endeared them to a generation of fans—views its live shows as the gateway to the group’s true essence. SCOTS (as they have been affectionately dubbed by their fans) has spent the past two-and-a-half decades crafting a live show that features both broadly appealing dance numbers and Southern-style odes to snack cakes and fried chicken.
Although the band’s antics can almost come across as campy, there’s another level to the SCOTS experience, one that can be described as more than just a communal party, and more along the lines of a redneck love-in. According to Miller, the give and take with the audiences make the Southern Culture on the Skids live experience unique every time.
“We came up in a time when the rapport between the audience and band was more like a party,” he says. “You never know what you are going to get. It’s like a chemistry experiment.”
That experiment has consistently paid off. Although the band’s album sales have never been more than moderate, SCOTS has wisely made its reputation as a live act, constantly packing houses across the country. It’s not the kind of marketing that’s likely to earn them a spot on the Billboard charts, but Miller doesn’t seem to have a problem with that.
“The records doing well probably won’t give you anything but critical success and expectations from the audience,” he says. “Those are two very different things. Any band that you go see live, any real rock ‘n’ roll band will turn it up a notch live, I don’t care who they are. Now if you want to hear the CD start to finish, there’s lots of bands that will do that too, but it’s not as exciting. I’d rather be in a band that turns it up live than be one that can’t meet the expectations the record gives. And there are lots of those.”
But underneath the songs about greasy food and the manic live performances lies the real heart of band’s music: the characters and tales within the songs themselves. The stories they tell aren’t of the prim and proper old South, but of the sometimes frightening, sometimes comical realm of the modern-day land below the Mason-Dixon line.
SCOTS songs explore sexual depravity, old-time religion, down-home cooking and all the fun that lies between. It’s a rogue’s gallery of characters straight out of the great Southern writing tradition of William Faulkner, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. For Miller, the songs are also a means of documenting the ever-changing landscape of America.
“As things get more generic, more homogenized, more corporate and streamlined, the South stands out as a place made up of quite unique individuals, for whatever reasons, good and bad,” he says.
A quarter-century into his career with the group, and with no signs of letting up, Miller still approaches Southern Culture on the Skids with the same verve and zeal as a punk-rock kid bashing out songs in his basement. His enthusiasm is palpable. But, does he ever worry that the band will run out of steam?
“The chemistry is still good. I don’t know what else to say,” he says with a laugh. “I keep ‘em working, too.”
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Southern Culture on the Skids with Gore Gore Girls
what: Dixie-fried surf rock and rockabilly
where: Orange Peel
when: Saturday, Dec. 15 (9 p.m. $16. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)