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If you want to learn, you go to an expert. Rick Miller, lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for North Carolina-based Southern Culture on the Skids, knows about a lot of things, not the least of which is life on the road.
Later this month, Miller, bassist Mary Huff, drummer Dave Hartman, and their supporting cast will pile into two vans -- one of which shows 350,000 miles on the odometer -- and ease onto America's highways in support of Mojo Box, their first album for Yep Roc Records and their eighth overall. With the exception of a short week and a half in early April, the band members won't see their Chapel Hill homes again until right around Memorial Day. It's a tour schedule and work ethic that the trio has followed more or less religiously since 1987.
Mojo Box follows in the tradition of the band's blend of country, psychobilly, and swamp-pop roots/rock, which hit its commercial peak with the 1996 Geffen release Dirt Track Date. That record included not only new songs but rerecorded versions of previous independent releases like the band's fried chicken classic "Eight Piece Box."
"There's no 'Banana Pudding' or 'Eight Piece Box' or something like that on Mojo," Miller says. "Some people might wonder at the lack of the food song on it, but I kind of like it because it's different for us. I don't think we're having to fall back on any sort of Southern white-trash sort of thing, other than what's naturally there, you know what I mean?"
And it was the nonfood curiosity "Camel Walk" that helped Dirt Trackbreak out as the Skids' most successful album, eventually selling more than 300,000 copies.
"It got radio airplay," Miller says of "Camel Walk." "But if you use radio as the criteria for what's good or bad, then you're in pretty bad shape. There were some great songs on that album, but 'Camel Walk,' which was just thrown on there, basically as filler, took off and really made that record sell. It was really good for us, though, because it did take us up a notch. More than a few notches, actually. You know, our growth had been steady over the other four or five records and the steady touring for four or five years, but with that little bit of radio airplay, all of a sudden, we were filling these clubs."
Though appreciated by the Skids' hard core of fans, songs like "Camel Walk" and "Eight Piece Box" have at times caused music critics to dismiss the group. "I don't think they're gimmick songs," Miller says. "As a matter of fact, I don't think they're really even novelty songs, you know, because they're written and sung sincerely. But other people do. Like most critics, who just don't like us off the bat. I don't know why, but they don't have much of a sense of humor. This record still has a sense of humor."
The band has averaged 150 to 200 road dates a year since its inception, but in the early days, before the success of Dirt Track, accommodations were a little more spartan than they are now. "We stayed in some real loser hotels," Miller says. "But they always find a soft spot in my heart. One of them was the Airport Inn in Louisville. If we were anywhere within 400 miles and we had, like, three days off in a row, we would just drive there because we could get rooms for $25 a night. And we'd sleep, like, four to a room, you know? The Airport Inn had an Indian buffet in the basement. I remember going down there and the tables were in a grid of orange electrical cords, like extension cords, and the guy, when he seated you, he would take the menus in one hand and a space heater in the other and then plug the space heater in right by your table because I guess they didn't have the money to pay their heating bill. The buffet was pretty good, actually.
"Motel 6 can be a good thing, but the maids are from hell," he continues. "They've got a noon checkout time, which is great. A lot of hotels have an 11 a.m. checkout time, which is not good. That's usually when you get up, around 11. But Motel 6 has maids, man, they start banging on the door at like 8, you know what I mean? They really don't give you a 'Do Not Disturb' thing to put on the door, so you're fair game for the maids. And I swear, they must get bonuses for as many people as they can get up and out by 10 o'clock."
While budget motel chains remain on the horizon, four-to-a-room sleeping arrangements are now part of the band's nostalgic past. All three members are in long-term relationships, so certain concessions have been made.
"The only way we can stay on the road that long and not lose everything in divorce settlements is to load everybody up," Miller says. "Mary's boyfriend, Rob, is our soundman. Dave's girlfriend, Lynn, is our merchandise person, and my wife, Sarah, is our roadie, basically. We just load them all up like a bunch of gypsies, man, and just hit the road. It's Southern culture. That's what it's all about. Always has been."