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Without an ounce of embarrassment, the author states that he spent the first 22 years of his life in semi-rural West Virginia. Not even stints in Virginia Beach, Toronto, D.C., and the Valley of the Sun have been able to shake the formative detritus of that era. It's hard, God knows, to find like-minded individuals with whom to share the culinary wonders of a place where people ask how your dinner was by inquiring, "What'd you have good?," but I do indulge every now and again. Even my lady friend, who's Canadian by birth and temperament, turns her face away when I boil up a bowl of elbow macaroni and tomato juice. (It's just like my mom's, except I can never get the butter-to-tomato-juice ratio quite right.)
So when an old hand like Rick Miller, resident guitar hound and songwriting whiz for Southern Culture on the Skids, starts declaiming the virtues of pan-fried chicken and Web-based music distribution, it's like a hit of clean mountain air with a decidedly modern twist.
"Aw, man, it's hell on the road for food," he moans. "Everything's the same, and you just have to take what you get, you know what I mean? It's hard to eat good. There's Burger Kings everywhere. By the end of about the fourth day, you just have to wonder, 'Am I going to be able to shit tonight?' 'Cause unfortunately, what goes in has to come out."
Ain't that the truth? For example, take last year's Liquored Up and Lacquered Down, SCOTS' first release on TVT Records. What went into it was Memphis blues, New Orleans soul, Tex-Mex horns, a little country swing, a little country rock and a whole mess of the pan-fried gator-swamp sound that Miller & Co. have been delivering since their early days in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; what came out was a loping hillbilly stomp the likes of which few outfits have the spirit, let alone the skill, to pull off.
Miller isn't the young kid he once was. His chin stripe is showing gray these days, and he and bandmates Mary Huff (bass and vocals), Dave Hartman (drums and vocals) and relative newcomer Chris Bess (keyboards and even more vocals) have decided to hell with the six-to-10-week tours they used to pull off. "We always knew that it was important to get out of Chapel Hill to do the road, if we wanted to make any money," he says from a hotel room in New Orleans. "You can't make any kind of living just with a record label. They've got attorneys and accountants all thinking up ways to not give you any. You've got to go on the road to do that. But this time out, we're pacing ourselves a little bit more, taking a few days off here and there."
Southern Culture on the Skids actually released its first album in 1985, but that was Miller with a handful of different players; it wasn't until 1991 that Huff and Hartman came along. But once they did, the three of them toured relentlessly and did more than make a living, they seeded the country with a fan base that stands even unto this day. Folks who own 1996's Dirt Track Date, the band's best-selling Geffen release, likely also own sides like 1991's Too Much Pork for Just One Fork and the killer live album Peckin' Party, from 1993. "We're doing okay these days," says Miller. "We've got a great bunch of people who come out to hear us."
By the same token, SCOTS themselves have always been boosters of the music they dig. They've backed up Hasil Adkins, the one-man band from Boone County, West Virginia, and even got the famed mountain man to roll out to North Carolina to headline at Sleazefest, a roots-punk festival Miller helped promote a few years back. They wound up playing at the late blues legend Junior Kimbrough's Mississippi juke joint one night, at Kimbrough's request, when they'd only dropped in to check out the scene. (Quick side note: During that gig, their van's battery was stolen. After they found out about it, they announced their need from the stage, asking if anyone had a spare battery for sale, and goddamn if they didn't end up buying back their own battery. The whole night is immortalized on Liquored Up and Lacquered Down in the song "I Learned to Dance in Mississippi.") At New Orleans' Jazzfest 2000, they ripped through a cover of Roger and the Gypsies' "Pass the Hatchet," a song they'd learned from an old uncredited 45, only to be approached by an ecstatic older fellow in the audience as a result.
"He came up to us and said, 'Man, I haven't heard that song in like 20 years,'" Miller says. "Turns out that Roger and the Gypsies used to play the frat party circuit around New Orleans. I couldn't believe it. That guy was the only person I'd ever met who even knew the song, much less had heard it played live by that band."
This kind of thing -- their roots coming back to visit them in the flesh or in spirit -- just seems to happen to Southern Culture on the Skids, which makes the band's recent entry into the world of Web distribution all the more remarkable. Hillbilly rockers offering their new album for download simultaneously with the hard copy hitting the stores?