Four-Piece Combo

Seven albums on, Southern Culture on the Skids waxes philosophical about hillbilly e-commerce, fried chicken and more

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."

Southern Culture on the Skids: From left, Chris Bess, Rick Miller, Mary Huff and Dave Hartman.
Ron Keith
Southern Culture on the Skids: From left, Chris Bess, Rick Miller, Mary Huff and Dave Hartman.

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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?

Hell, yes, says Miller adamantly. They actually had most of Liquored Up and Lacquered Down finished before they even signed their current two-album deal with TVT Records, which recently entered into a partnership with EMusic, a company that specializes in pro-quality music distribution on the Web. Through their connection with EMusic, SCOTS has been able to offer fans live videos, unreleased tracks, road stories and chats with the band. "I think it's a great thing. Now, not everybody has a computer, but more people do than I would've ever thought. And that really helps out smaller, hard-working bands if they can get their stuff up and online. It's still growing, of course, but it'll eventually be the best way, I think, to get your music out there. It might already be, in fact. Plus, you can maintain more control over it, which was always important for us."

SCOTS also maintained control by recording in Miller's home-built studio in Mebane, North Carolina, a process that went on throughout the writing of the album. "It was a great feel. It was like, write a song, build a wall, write a song, build a wall. . . . That's the way to do it, man, if you can. We didn't have a record label breathing down our necks, saying, 'Well, we don't hear a hit, and how about if you do this,' and all that. It was a great time."

That fervor comes through in spades on Liquored Up, you'll be happy to hear. Even if you're familiar with everything that came before, you're missing a special joy if you haven't heard it. Liquored Up's 44 minutes prove that SCOTS has not only grown eminently confident playing together, band members have stretched their musicianship to its very limits and held it together like journeymen. Miller's tales of moonshine runners and cheap motels on songs like "King of the Mountain" and . . . well, "Cheap Motels" are soulful rave-ups straight from the main vein, but the playing skill here is leaps and bounds ahead of the group's previous efforts, which weren't pedestrian by any stretch. Miller's fretboard had to have been smoking at the end of "The Corn Rocket"; the achingly pretty "Just How Lonely" revived this author's adolescent crush on Mary Huff's whiskey-smoke voice all over again; Chris Bess' stunning keyboard work is all over the aforementioned "I Learned to Dance in Mississippi" and "Pass the Hatchet"; and Dave Hartman's timekeeping is sharper than it ever was -- check out the two-four chugalug and snare-drum fills on "Over It," which comprise the hottest minute and 57 seconds you'll hear in a while. And if Merle Haggard doesn't cover "Drunk and Lonesome (Again)" on his next release, replete with its last-chorus key modulation, it'll only be due to the stupidity of his handlers. In all, it seems the perfect album to tour on.

"We're having a great time," says Miller of the band's road tripping. "We always do." Still and all, let's not lose our savvy: A conversation about corporate sponsorship, augmented by a fried-chicken digression, leads Miller to a philosophical moment.

"We got approached once, years back, by a sausage company who said they wanted to sponsor us. So in the course of discussing what they'd be able to give us in the way of payment, they said, 'Well, we can't pay you money, but we'll give you a lifetime's supply of sausage.' That's what you don't want, to be paid off in sausage. Of course, they probably figured we'd die early if we accepted it."

Though to be sure, Southern Culture on the Skids hasn't lost its legendary affinity for fried chicken, a topic Miller eases into with the surety of a culinarian.

"You ask me, pan fried is the best way to make chicken. Roll it in a little flour and fry it up. But there's so many ways to make it. You got your drumsticks, your wings, your breasts . . . we've tried chicken on the road all variety of different ways. Chicken with yogurt, all kinds of things. You don't get many people writing about pork or steak, but it seems like hundreds of people have written songs about chicken. The chicken's a versatile bird."

And speaking of versatile birds . . . but you know that already.

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