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Culture Shock

Rick Miller isn't a fan of South Florida's club scene. As the singer/guitarist for popular rockabilly group Southern Culture on the Skids, he's not in love with venues festooned with chrome and mirrors. And he says he hasn't had good luck winning over crowds this far south. For a North Carolina hillbilly like Miller, the pomp and panache of some local joints are too foreign for a group that enjoys the simpler side of making music.

"I really don't like watching myself dance," Miller says. "It always seemed like the goth/DJ dance party after the live show was more important than the bands." But after playing the Culture Room last April, he says the band may have found a home in Fort Lauderdale. He likes that the Culture Room books only original music — calling that a rarity. "Even the clubs in Chapel Hill book a Led Zeppelin cover band occasionally," Miller says.

Admittedly, the group's music is a tough sell at times, though some people familiar with SCOTS inevitably call them one of the best live bands they've ever seen. Their style isn't wholly original, as almost every city has its own retrofitted, bluesy, garage band. But after ten full-length albums, countless nights on the road — and a career spanning more than two decades — Southern Culture on the Skids still has a knack for putting on notoriously fun performances with their potent brand of trailer-park rock.

Many of the group's lyrics are brain-numbingly simple. This is after-sunset, out-on-the-creaky-front-porch, having-some-beers-and-watching-fireflies music. Its cover of the Louvin Brothers' "The Great Atomic Power," from 2005's Ditch Diggin', shows SCOTS in tongue-in-cheek Armageddon style: "... Will you shout or will you cry/When the fire rains from on high?" That's about as serious as the band gets, and even those are lyrics written by another group.

Miller spoke by phone with New Times during a recent coffee break at his recording studio, near the small town of Mebane, North Carolina. He says his most immediate project includes working on a new album for fellow Carolina country band the Two Dollar Pistols. "The idea is to get the most from the amp, the guitar — what you do with your fingers [to make it] an all-analog approach," he says. That's the way he records most of SCOTS material as well, and it's evident in their music. Fans of vintage guitar tones, tube amplifiers, old-fashioned drum sounds, and classic vocal microphones would have a hard time finding fault with a SCOTS record or live show. All of these spare parts add up to create what Miller calls, in his classic retro drawl, a "pleasurable listening experience."

For SCOTS, pleasurable experiences are a way of life. Perhaps what's surprising is that the pleasures are not of the liquor, wild women, and gambling variety (at least not exclusively). Miller is a father, and his son and wife often travel with the band. Sometimes, Mom helps with the T-shirts and sometimes, bassist/vocalist Mary Huff helps with the kid. Girlfriends (presumably of drummer Dave Hartman) and boyfriends (presumably Huff's) are allowed on board too, usually pitching in with the daily chores of touring. "We have a sort of gypsy, family vibe going on, and it's nice," Miller says. "SCOTS is about nothing if not family." Clarifying that it's not exactly a let's all hold hands and sing "We Are the World" type of organization, Miller interjects his belief that "music is all about throwing people curve balls." And, he might add, chicken.

Since the release of their song "Eight Piece Box" from 1995's Dirt Track Date, SCOTS shows come with the possibility that you will be struck by a piece of flying fried chicken. This part of the show, when the band aerially shares its favorite soul-food staple, has ensured the purchase of wings, legs, thighs, and breasts in every metropolitan area of the United States. The band has tried to phase out the chicken bit, but Miller says the response to that was a series of near-riots. "Kind of makes you wonder if they came out for the band or for the chicken!" he adds. So who's got the best chicken in all the land? "Bones and Buddy's," Miller says matter-of-factly, referring to a mom-and-pop joint in Portsmouth, Virginia. But the feast doesn't end there. Damned if these Southern bands don't love their banana pudding as well. Athens, Georgia,'s acclaimed rock band Drive-By Truckers praises the delicacy in their song "Sink Hole," and SCOTS, not to be outdone, go flat-out bonkers in concert on their own song "Banana Puddin'" from the 2001 album Plastic Seat Sweat. While singing melodies such as "Puddin'-puddin'-puddin'-puddin'-puddin'-puddin'-puddin'-puddin'/ Ain't that a slipp'ry groove," how can this fun-loving trio go wrong?

Obviously, to start calling SCOTS "lyricists" would be a stretch. Even their latest long-player, Countrypolitan Favorites, sees the band play 15 of its favorite songs written by other people. It's not exactly a typical covers collection, however, as SCOTS had never played most of these songs until they started rehearsals for the album. As a result, Countrypolitan is unmistakably the handiwork of rock connoisseurs and old-time country twang.

"Our record collections are vast," Miller says without hesitation. He points out that, as they developed the twists on this album, he realized they were "rock-ifying the country and countrifying the rock" in equal measure. So country AM radio gems like "Oh, Lonesome Me," "Rose Garden," and "Wolverton Mountain" get revved up and surfed out, while rockers like the Who's "Happy Jack," T. Rex's "Life's a Gas," and the Kinks' "Muswell Hillbilly" get the banjo-and-drawl treatment.

By now, we shouldn't be shocked when SCOTS takes the party to another level as on Countrypolitan, because that's what audiences expect. Less-talented purveyors of rockabilly tend to push the "wildness" envelope, but Miller prefers to work on new tunes, song arrangements, or tweaking his guitar sound. His voice is tinged with the confidence of a successful artist, the humility of a father, and the humor of a man who doesn't take himself too seriously.

The press release for Countrypolitan calls the album a "romantic stew," and just the fact that SCOTS is comfortable with those two words together sums it all up. Consider this: For the album's cover photo, band members donned their Sunday-best regalia, grabbed their instruments, and headed straight for the portrait studio of a nearby Wal-Mart. Now that's Southern culture on the extreme.

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Andrés Solar

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