Southern Culture on the Skids
Southern Culture on the Skids
An oft-repeated legend is that Southern Culture on the Skids played its first public show at a midnight theater as the opening act for a pornographic movie. Whether that’s true or not (and it can often be difficult to separate reality from mythology where the Skids are concerned), it ought to be. Equal parts high-concept kitsch and lowdown earthiness, the Skids’s’ most common song topics include food, bugs, and modes of transportation. Yet they’ve always had more going on than just booze-soaked good times, even though you can have plenty of fun taking them no farther than that. The Skids work territory similar to the B-52’s, evoking an updated gothic Southern vibe encompassing trailer parks, moonshine, voodoo, Elvis sightings, and drive-in movie theaters. Musically, they can pull off just about any style imaginable—rockabilly, surf, soul, country, even strange world accents. “Our music’s kind of like eatin’ in a Southern plate lunch joint because there’s a bunch of different flavors and they’ve all been cookin’ for a while,” bandleader Rick Miller told Pollstar magazine. “But when you put them on the same plate, they all run together.”
Miller and Stan Lewis formed Southern Culture on the Skids in 1983 in Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina. The lineup fluctuated for a number of years, numbering as many as five members before Lewis quit in 1987, leaving Miller in charge. He soon drafted bassist Mary Huff from a Richmond, Virginia, band called the Phantoms. Her friend Dave Hartman followed as the new Skids drummer, and the trio’s lineup was set.
The Skids then took off across America, logging countless miles on the road while carving out a reputation as a crackerjack live ensemble. The road became their home, in part because it suited them better than their hometown. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the alternative-rock revolution that eventually yielded Nirvana was brewing in college towns including Chapel Hill (where future indie-rock buzzbands like Superchunk were coming together). The Skids had just as much garage in them as any punk band, but they never really fit into anyone’s notion of alternative rock. They were a little too blue-collar, and not quite eggheaded enough. “That’s the good thing about being a roots band, you’re never outta work,” Miller said in a 1997 interview for the Charlotte Observer. “You may not be hip, but you don’t live and die by trends, either.”
Playing more than 200 dates a year, the band connected with scores of like-minded bands on the roots-rock chitlins circuit—everyone from the Cramps to Reverend Horton Heat. In 1994 the Skids started up a roots-rock festival in Chapel Hill: Sleazefest, an annual weekend-long shindig featuring the Skids as the headliner over a bill of similarly inclined roots-oriented bands from all over the country.
Playing live has always been the Skids’ primary medium, and their early recordings remain most notable as accessories to the spectacle of their onstage performances. But they still took a big step forward with 1994’s Ditch Digginì, which featured the pile-driving statement of purpose “Too Much Pork for Just One Fork” (which did not appear on the 1990 Skids album of the same name, oddly enough) and a revved-up cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “The Great Atomic Power.”
By the time they reached the ten-year mark, their profile was high enough that they finally began attracting major-label attention. Geffen Records signed the band in 1994 and issued the Dirt Track Date album the following year on its “alternative” imprint DGC (the same label as Nirvana, ironically enough). In some ways, Dirt Track Date was a best-of compilation, since it contained new versions of old Skids favorites from past albums, including the innuendo-laced “8 Piece Box” and the radio hit “Voodoo Cadillac.”
Improbably, Dirt Track Date was a major success. Although it never reached Billboard’s Top 200 album chart, it sold a quarter-million copies, mostly on the strength of airplay for the swamp-rock album-opener “Voodoo Cadillac.” The very peculiar S&M ode “Camel Walk” also picked up some major exposure in the 1996 screwball comedy Flirting with Disaster. The Skids continued their multimedia ways by appearing as themselves in the 1997 movie I Know What You Did Last Summer (as the band in a beach-party scene at the beginning of the film).
Before recording 1997’s Plastic Seat Sweat, the Skids added a fourth member, keyboardist Chris Bess. The
Members include Chris Bess (joined group, 1997), keyboards; Dave Hartman, drums; Mary Huff, bass, vocals; Rick Miller (born in 1956 in Henderson, NC), guitar, vocals, songwriting.
Group formed in Chapel Hill, NC, c. 1983; self-released first album Southern Culture on the Skids, 1985; signed with Geffen Records, released major-label debut Dirt Track Date, 1995; left Geffen after Plastic Seat Sweat, 1997; appeared in the movie I Know What You Did Last Summer, 1997; released Liquored Up and Lacquered Down on TVT/eMusic, 2000.
Addresses: Record company—TVT Records, 23 East Fourth St., New York, NY 10003, website: http://www.TVTrecords.com. Management—Billions Corporation, 333 West Chicago Ave., Ste. 101, Chicago, IL 60622-5497, website: http://www.billions.com. Website—Southern Culture on the Skids Official Website: http://www.scots.com.
beefed-up instrumental approach added distinctive new textures to the album, another slyly ribald roots-rock tour de force. It did not sell up to expectations, however, so the Skids decided they’d be better off going it alone again, parting ways with Geffen in 1998.
“We actually recouped—how many bands can say that?” Miller said in a 2000 interview with the author. “But we still didn’t sell enough records for them. So when it came time for the option, they were a little skeptical … and were just desperately looking for hits. So they said they’d renew us, but conditionally. They had to hear something they could go to radio with within 3 months. And they needed us to go on tour with some ska bands to get to that 16-year-old demographic. I mean, look at me, I’ve got gray hair! So we said thanks, but no thanks.”
While losing a record deal is usually a setback, the Skids’ timing proved fortuitous. Within a year of the band’s departure, Geffen was dissolved in the Universal/PolyGram merger and effectively ceased to exist. By then, the Skids had already cranked out another album, 1998’s independent release Zombified. Their next effort, 2000’s Liquored Up and Lacquered Down, even had some high-tech logistics behind it. The album was released as a joint venture between TVT Records and eMusic online, in both compact disc and online versions. But that had no effect at all on the subject matter; the album’s song titles included “Pass the Hatchet,” “Drunk and Lonesome (Again),” “Corn Liquor,” “The Corn Rocket” and “Damaged Goods.”
“Looking back on my life the last 2 years, what did I have to write about?” Miller told Billboard. “The only thing that popped up was alcohol. So this is basically drinking songs, our drinking album. Ray Price had one, why can’t we?”
Southern Culture on the Skids, Lloyd St., 1985.
Too Much Pork for Just One Fork, Moist, 1990.
For Lovers Only, Safe House, 1992.
Ditch Diggin’, Safe House, 1994.
Peckin’ Party, Feedbag, 1994.
Dirt Track Date, DGC, 1995.
Plastic Seat Sweat, DGC, 1997.
Zombified, Monkey Dog Music, 1998.
Liquored Up and Lacquered Down, TVT/eMusic, 2000.
Billboard, July 8, 1995.
Observer (Charlotte, NC), January 18, 1991.
Option, January/February 1996.
harlotte, November 17, 1991.
Spectator, September 19, 1985.
Southern Culture on the Skids Official Website, http://www.scots.com (February 28, 2003).
Additional information was taken from interviews with Rick Miller on August 18, 1994; November 21, 1997; and July 25, 2000, and was provided by Geffen publicity materials, 1995-97.
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