Some of Rick Miller's first sexual fantasies came to him while assembling mobile homes in his dad's factory in Henderson, North Carolina. A group of cleaning women worked in the factory, and one particularly piqued Miller's pubescent fancy.
"She was about 45 years old," Miller recalls fondly, "and she wore halter tops every day. And they'd be in there with lacquer thinner, and they'd be cleaning the walls -- the fake wood grain, the pressboard that's supposedly pine paneling. And by the end of the day, they'd be totally high! And her breasts would be hanging out of her halter top. I was sixteen or so, and I was just getting introduced to adulthood there."
Such is the inspiration for the song "Country Funk," sung in Miller's classic poor-boy drawl: "What's that dripping down your pant leg, boy?/Must be that country funk!" It's a sort of white-trash bildungsroman, done with the twanging guitars and tongue-in-cheek humor that have become the trademark of Miller's merry band of bumpkins, Southern Culture on the Skids.
If Miller (guitar), Mary Huff (bass), and Dave Hartman (minimal drum kit) weren't actually born and raised in the South (Huff and Hartman hail from Roanoke, Virginia), they probably wouldn't be allowed to get away with lampooning the region's lowest classes. On stage Miller might wear overalls or polyester pants; Huff usually sports a beehive the size of the Hindenburg; and Hartman may appear in anything from floodwater jeans to a pair of Depends. Likewise the songs on the band's latest CD, Plastic Seat Sweat (DGC), are not the most flattering portraits of the working poor: There's the drug-addled truck-driver of "40 Miles to Vegas," the impregnated girlfriend of "Shotgun," and, of course, the overworked sexpot of "Country Funk."
But Southern Culture on the Skids is closer to Hee Haw than Deliverance: cornpone comedy that milks its stereotypes for all they're worth. And while Miller's humor occasionally pushes the boundaries of decency, it's basically good, semi-clean fun.
"It always depresses me to think that people think we're mean-spirited and making fun of it all," says Miller, speaking from his Chapel Hill home. "They don't realize that, actually, we celebrate it."
By way of example, Miller tells the tale of another coworker from Henderson: "We'd have these county fairs that had a muzzled bear, and anybody who could stay in the ring for more than two minutes, they won 50 bucks. And this one guy I worked with -- I think he's in prison now, he was a moonshiner, he had his fingers in everything -- every year, he'd try to wrestle the bear to win that 50 bucks. And he'd just get his ass kicked. But he was back every year, and I thought that really said something about the human spirit."
Wherever that coworker is now, he's immortalized on "The Man That Wrestles the Bear," a song from Southern Culture's 1992 CD, For Lovers Only. "A lot of our stuff's like that, somewhat autobiographical," Miller explains. "I think people from the South are just a little more eccentric. There's a lot of them around, and they're subject to local folklore. And it just kind of gets in your craw, and you can't get rid of it. But I like it, man; it kind of keeps you in touch with a certain part of your being."
That "certain part" of one's being has meant different things to different Southern writers. For Flannery O'Connor it meant the self-imposed psychological torture of religious hypocrisy. For William Faulkner it meant the brutal poverty of the hardscrabble farmers. For Rick Miller it means loud shirts, white loafers, used condoms, rockabilly guitar, and really bad taste in interior decorating.
It also means food, a recurring theme in Miller's songs since Southern Culture formed more than a decade ago. Tunes such as "8 Piece Box," "Biscuit Eater," and "Tunafish Every Day" are well known to long-time fans of the band, and the latest album adds a couple of new epicurean gems: "Carve That Possum" and the genuinely raunchy "Banana Puddin'."
"Most of the food I write about is Southern regional delicacies, stuff I ate growing up," says Miller. "And I find that food, since it deals with orifices, makes for excellent metaphors for other things."
"Banana Puddin'" boasts some of Miller's most suggestive lyrics yet: "Gimme something funky with the skin on top," and "Ain't that a slippery groove?" But the song's best couplet may be: "So get out your bowl and your wooden spoon/'Cause I can smell your puddin' clean across this room!"
In fact, it's Miller's songwriting that saves Southern Culture on the Skids from coagulating into stale shtick. While he's proven himself a wry rhymester, Miller is also capable of penning bona fide roots-rock. The band's previous DGC release, Dirt Track Date (1995), features a track called "Whole Lotta Things" that serves as an effective update on both Eddie Cochran and the Everly Brothers. Over a snappy sock-hop beat, Miller pines, "Well I never kissed lips tender and true/Never had a dollar that I couldn't lose/Ain't been in love and I ain't now/But that don't mean that I don't know how."
On Plastic Seat Sweat, Miller turns his caricaturist's eye toward a more serious issue: the increasing modernization of his beloved South. "Earthmover" sounds like a typical Southern Culture send-up, but its lyrics tell the tale of a bucolic fellow who wakes one morning to find that his home is being flattened by a real estate developer. His lament: "Earthmover, mighty big groover/Earthmover is tearing my old shack down/And there ain't no way I can stake my claim/This here is a movin' town."
"The more people that move in here from other places, while it's good for the economy and the quality of living, it also brings a certain homogenization," Miller observes. "You see the decline of the regional grocery stores and the small Zippy Marts, and it's all national chains and the big stores in the malls. It adds up. And after a while, everybody looks the same and dresses the same, and then they start to think the same. And that's scary."
Not that Miller is preparing to release a Southern Culture version of Nebraska or anything. The band's job is still making good old-fashioned party music. Huff takes the microphone on the come-hither songs (such as "House of Bamboo"), Hartman provides the gunshot-style rhythms, and Miller leads the charge with his local-yokel vocals and authentically nasty guitar. Think of Southern Culture as an inbred hybrid of the B-52's and the Cramps.
"You gotta be able to dance to it, so it's gotta have a groove somewhere," Miller says of his tunes. "And then maybe a catchy line or two. The melody, of course, should be there, but if you got a catchy line and a hook, that's really all you need for a rock 'n' roll song. And I think it needs to be under four minutes. Really good rock 'n' roll comes on strong and is over before you know what hit you."
Miller says he's looking forward to bringing Southern Culture down to West Palm Beach this Friday, which will mark the band's first visit to South Florida. "We've been playing Pensacola, which some people consider lower Alabama, for about five or six years, and Tallahassee, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Tampa, all of 'em," says Miller, who briefly lived in Winter Haven as a child.
"I like Florida, myself. It's a freak show. On the one hand, there's all these old people, and then there's all these young people. And I don't see anybody in between, unless it's like farmers or swampers or whatever. And you have all these young people who are totally wild, who all work in food service or the tourist trade."
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Miller also notes: "The thrift stores are killer! I guess all those people bring all their stuff down there, and then they die, so they ship their bodies back, but they leave all their possessions. So it makes for great thrift stores. We always try to stop at a few when we're down there."
Southern Culture's trashy kitsch will certainly make an interesting import into the upscale neighborhood of West Palm Beach. Whether anyone will get the joke remains to be seen.
"It's not like we're raising the Dixie flag or anything. I don't identify with that side of it at all," says Miller. "The abnormalities and the freaks and the eccentrics -- they're what keep you in touch with who you are and where you come from. Even though so many of us are homogenized into the mainstream, I think there's a real need for those people who live on the outside, on the outskirts of civilization or respectability. It's good for you, and it keeps you honest. You realize there's more to life than the mall and working behind the computer."
Southern Culture on the Skids plays with the Exotics at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, January 23 at Respectable Street Cafe, 518 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $8. Call 561-832-9999.