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Sometimes music doesn't need to be art. Just give the folks psychotic hillbilly gee-tar, lyrics celebrating an unholy alliance between food and sex, and throw some fried chicken around. That's the way Southern Culture on the Skids (or SCOTS, for short) does it. The Chapel Hill quartet is renowned for providing its audiences Southern staples such as extra-crispy drumsticks, banana pudding, and pork rinds. Who couldn't get down with all that?
"You'd be surprised," says drummer Dave Hartman in a recent phone interview from home. "Most critics don't like an entertainment-value component with music; they want it to be art. We try to be entertaining both on record and on stage, but we generally don't get good reviews, if we can even get one at all."
Bassist Mary Huff says the band's material is simply a reflection of geographical circumstance: "We live in the South. We sing about things that we know about, like Southern food and Southern people."
And Rick Miller, who plays guitar and shares vocal duties with Huff, doesn't see anything wrong with that. He remains unperturbed by those scribes who have written the band off as a novelty act grown in a petri dish of Hee Haw reruns. "Doesn't bother me," he says in a thick, slow-cooked drawl. "What are you gonna do? They're so serious about everything -- they just need to loosen up. A good bowel movement would probably help 'em out."
Miller launched SCOTS in 1985 with a self-titled debut and revved-up ditties like "Rockabilly Mud" and "Atom Age Trucker." A few years later, Hartman and Huff signed on. With Huff's skyscraper beehive adding at least a foot to her already formidable height and Hartman playing the drum kit standing up, often clad in nothing but oversize diapers, they provided perfect visual and musical complement to Miller's lanky-bumpkin approach.
The band released half a dozen discs on various Southern indie imprints during the early '90s. The songs from these records reflected the band's less-than-orthodox style. They included a Mexican wrestling homage ("Santo Sings"), a twangy tale about snack crackers called "Camel Walk," the swaggering, R&B-inflected "Girlfight," and various tributes to Link Wray, the Louvin Brothers, and Chuck Berry.
In 1995 Geffen Records signed SCOTS. The band's major-label debut, Dirt Track Date, offered a slightly slicker production, which did nothing to obscure the silly, sloppy charms of "8-Piece Box" (the original poultry-tossing anthem) and the funked-up single "Soul City," which did well on college radio, despite representing a departure from the band's typical sound.
Plastic Seat Sweat, released two years later, offered more of the same: plenty of Miller's surf-punk guitar riffs, Hartman's sturdy backbeat and snappy snare work, and a few sassy Huff-sung numbers to offset Miller's songwriting dominance.
Despite the lowbrow lunacy exemplified in songs such as "Chicken Shit Farmer," the band's songwriting and musicianship remain at the heart of its success. Southern shtick, after all, will get you only so far. That's why many of SCOTS' most loyal fans are either college students or altcountry aficionados who turn to the group as a worthy source of comic relief.
Other fans, of course, include anyone who hasn't eaten dinner yet.
In Miller's mind, at least, the heart and soul of SCOTS resides in the happy excess of Southern cooking. And he's obviously devoted considerable thought to the subject. "I'm not saying that you can't make vegetarian food without making it taste good, because I think you can," he notes. "Those natural people just need to do a little bit more experimenting. Tofu's the same way. If you marinate it in pig fat, it'd probably taste pretty good."
That's basically what SCOTS does to its songs -- and audiences. During a jaunty little number known as "Too Much Pork For Just One Fork," Miller and company have recently taken to tossing bags of gen-u-ine pork rind products into the crowd. Miller says folks eat 'em up, no matter what they're called. "Chitlins, chitterlings, cracklins, chicharrones, pork skins I call 'em cracklins if they still have hairs on 'em, those big hard ones that won't boil off."
Huff, gum smacking loudly, disagrees: "I think pork rinds are nasty. They've got a weird smell, like singed hair or a really bad sulfur fart. It's like if our drummer, Dave Hartman, had eaten chili dogs and gone on a drinkin' binge the night before. That's what his gas would smell like in the van the next day. I can identify the other members by the smell of their, uh, gas."
Huff's olfactory skills have become even more discerning of late. A trio for more than a decade, SCOTS recently took on another comrade: Chris Bess, known as "Cousin Crispy," who contributes keyboards and general messiness, as well as a resemblance to both Junior Samples and Chris Farley. The current lineup is hoping to release a new disc later this year.
With nearly a decade spent on the road, SCOTS places an emphasis on the joys of its live show. "We know other people think we're a novelty," Hartman admits. "It gets frustrating, but if you can go to one of our shows and go away and say that you didn't have fun, then something's wrong with you. People pay good money to go see a band, and they don't want to be depressed or reminded of any problems they have. They want to have fun."
Which the band is eager to dispense, laden with lots of Southern pride. Miller is quick to good-naturedly defuse or defend any number of indigenous stereotypes. "In the South we get a bum rap about inbreeding," notes the author of "My House Has Wheels." But, he says, "there's probably more inbreeding in Maine than there is in North Carolina. Just 'cause the cabins are smaller and the winters are longer."
This does not mean, of course, that Miller is beyond articulating some of the coarser aspects of Southern culture. Perhaps the finest example of his poor man's poetry is "Plastic Seat Sweat," a spoken-word treatise on lower-torso perspiration.
"That's just something I came up with down in Mobile, Alabama, in an un-air-conditioned van," he says. "Mary had just bought a little cassette recorder to record her thoughts, and I said, 'Hey, let me see that, I've got a thought. Not only that, but my balls are so sweaty!' Then we got the idea for the chair on the cover of the Plastic Seat Sweatalbum. The chair was delivered to us for a photo shoot, and it was so damn hot then. The first thing I thought of when I sat in it was, 'Man, my ass is so wet!' So we paired the two things together. Plastic-seat sweat: Everybody's got it."
Miller, who'd look powerful strange in anything but his omnipresent overalls, grew up surrounded by kitsch, and he used those tacky icons to build the house of SCOTS. As it turns out, the vinyl recliner on the cover of Plastic Seat Sweat is a relic rooted in reality.
"All I had in the house to listen to music on when I was a kid was a La-Z-Boy recliner my dad had, with an eight-track player built right in, with the speakers on either side of your head. It was great. You'd push a button and the machine would just pop out, you'd drop your eight-track in and listen to it all day. He used to sell mobile homes, and he was always on the road, stoppin' at truck stops, buying tons of bootleg eight-tracks. He was always getting weird furniture deals, 'cause the mobile home industry was where they liquidated a lot of things that didn't work!" He guffaws. "One time I went home to visit him, and he had, like, fuzzy orange furniture. He had electric blue shag carpeting and beanbag chairs. But he couldn't sell them or give them away. Not even in a mobile home."
The group's fans trade not only in bad furniture tales, MP3 files, lyrics, and tour dates but recipes as well. "Banana Puddin'," a two-chord stomper from Plastic Seat Sweat celebrating one of the South's best-loved desserts, stretches the food/sex metaphor to the breaking point. In concerts the culinary item accompanies the song as spoonfuls are tossed at crowds. The SCOTS official version is made with sugar, salt, cornstarch, "whupped eggs," butter, sliced bananas, and vanilla wafers. It is then refrigerated for several days.
But after carefully following the instructions, the resultant three-day-old pudding looks almost dangerous, with a thick skin. "No, it's not," Miller insists. "I think certain things are better with a couple days of age on 'em. It's just retaining the flavors that were lost in the process. Those vanilla wafers, they don't taste like anything. They taste like cardboard. But after a day or two yum!"
Contact Jeff Stratton at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org