A band’s name is often intended to reflect the music it makes. However in the case of Southern Culture on the Skids, the handle seems something of a misnomer.
That’s because the band is best known for its mishmash of sounds and styles, one that effectively represents a collision of cultures, Southern and otherwise. Over the course of its 36 years, the group has incorporated rock, rockabilly, surf, punk, garage and country, with an ample dose of humor added for good measure. Yet though much of it morphed from Southern environs, the music also serves as an ideal soundtrack for the perfect party.
“That’s exactly where we were coming from,” said the band’s founder, guitarist and singer, Rick Miller. “All of us in the band come from different musical backgrounds, but I really wanted it to be kind of like a buffet of sound. You take little pieces of this and little pieces of that, and then you put them all together. I grew up in a little town where we only had two radio stations, an AM station and an FM station. The AM station was pretty diverse along racial lines, so it played a lot of different kinds of music. So I just thought it was always that way. I never saw much difference between Booker T. and Buck Owens, or even the Beatles. It was all about good songs. If there was a good melody, that was all you needed.”
Miller said that philosophy is still important to the band today.
“Music’s not about categories for us,” he said. “It’s about good times. Making it, playing it, having people listening to it.”
Southern Culture on the Skids, or SCOTS as they’re referred to for short, has seen several members come and go over the years, but the current core trio, consisting of Miller, bassist Mary Huff and drummer Dave Hartman, has remained intact for more than 30 years. Miller formed the band when he was a student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and the group has been at it ever since.
“After school, everyone went in a different direction, but I wanted to keep going,” he said. Indeed, SCOTS is still going strong after 16 albums, various associations with different record companies (they currently record for their own indie label), and an extensive touring schedule that’s taken the band all over the world.
“The secret of success is that every member gets their own seat in the van,” Miller added, his tongue lodged firmly in cheek. “Yeah, I don’t know how we made it so long. I know one thing. We made all the decisions together. We never really had much in terms of management and when we dealt with out record label, we produced all our records ourselves. So when something went screwy, we had no one to blame but ourselves. It works out better than everyone blaming someone else.”
“Screwy” may indeed be apt description of the reputation the band has acquired over the years. Parody always has been a part of the plan. One of the wacky tacks the band has taken to in the past has been to throw fried chicken into the audience, and stand their ground when the crowd tosses it back. Ultimately banana pudding was added to the mix as well.
“It always comes back a lot harder than it goes out,” Miller noted. “It’s a little like a chemistry experiment. You never know what you’re going to get. The chicken bounces off, but the pudding gets hard and sticks to you. When I would bring my guitar into the house, my dog wanted to eat it. We quit doing it for awhile, but then all our fans would say, ‘Where’s the chicken?’ So we still do it. We got tired of catering it, so now it’s in the contract. No chicken, no show. Besides, the promoters know all the good local chicken joints anyway.”
In fact, the extent of the craziness is often out of their control. Miller recalls one especially odd concert during one of SCOTS’ first trips to Knoxville.
“It was a big hair party,” he recalled. “It was in a biker bar. It went on all night and I remember we served as judges. It was a lot of fun. The winner had her hair wrapped around a 7-11 ‘Big Gulp’ cup. It was questionable that maybe she should have been disqualified for that, but there was nothing in the rule book that said she couldn’t use an object to pile her hair up.”
Miller said the band still prefers playing bars to bigger venues.
“We hold quite a few records as far as bar tabs are concerned,” he said. “The owners love us.”
Although the band doesn’t tour as much as it used to — one year alone, it did 300 dates — Miller said the main mission is still about creating a good vibe.
“When you’re up on stage, even if you’re having a bad night — and everyone has a bad night now and then — if you look like you’re having a good time, everyone’s going to follow you. I’m always having a good time, and I think people want to follow along. It’s a whole pied piper thing. There’s an energy in the room that’s very real and positive. I’m serious about making music, but if you take yourself too seriously, it’s hard to have fun.”