Hillbillies Deluxe

It seems somehow appropriate that when Rick Miller, the force behind Southern Culture on the Skids, is contacted at his house/ studio in North Carolina for a scheduled interview, his girlfriend answers and says, "He went to pick up some lumber with a buddy."

Visions of a whisker-chinned Miller sipping moonshine and pounding nails to replace rotted planks in a dilapidated shack immediately leap to mind. After all, this is a band that plays up white-trash stereotypes -- not the most subtle of cultures to begin with -- in its music and image. Yet rather than exist as a lame one-joke exercise, the quartet embraces tradition as much as it parodies it; the group has a firm grasp on genres ranging from old-time C&W and mountain music to swamp rock, Tex-Mex and rockabilly. It's what makes Southern Culture's most recent release, Liquored Up and Lacquered Down, such an enjoyable ride. Think of it as the soundtrack to an Erskine Caldwell novel.

It's the day after the presidential race has been decided, and when finally reached, Miller is excited about the prospects of a Bush administration, though his anticipation has nothing to do with foreign affairs or the economy. "I think there's going to be a lot of bourbon parties in the White House, panties on people's heads and everything," he says. "Bush seems like a party boy with a bunch of frat-boy friends. You will also see a lot of bass fishing and visits to strip clubs."

Miller is here to talk not politics but the new record. "It's hands-down my favorite," he says. "We recorded it ourselves in a studio we built. And it sounds most like us because we didn't have any outside influence or a clock on the wall. There was a relaxed and confident feel."

Indeed, songs like the Tex-Mex title track (a semitribute to the late Doug Sahm), "Corn Liquor," "Damaged Goods," "Cheap Motels" and "Drunk and Lonesome (Again)" explore familiar SCOTS subjects. Other tracks are based on real-life experiences. "I Learned to Dance in Mississippi" recalls the band's visit to the juke joint of the late bluesman Junior Kimbrough, and "King of the Mountain" is about an entrepreneur who sold booze and pornography out of his trunk to hillbillies far removed from the closest convenience store.

The band -- songwriter Miller (vocals, guitar), Mary Huff (vocals, bass), Dave Hartman (drums) and newest addition Chris "Crispy" Bess (keyboards) -- also ventured into the brave new world of cybermusic with Liquored Up and Lacquered Down, releasing it simultaneously on TVT Records and via the Internet at Emusic.com. That's not bad considering the group didn't even have a label during recording.

"We've been on everything from tiny independent labels to a major one, so we figured we'd try this Internet thing and see where it went. It's a good way for a band that has a niche, like us, to sell a record," Miller says. Southern Culture also has its own -- gasp! -- Web site for all rednecks to check out when they're bored with the porn sites.

These high-tech hicks have come a long way since 1985 when Miller formed SCOTS after earning an art degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Debuting with an EP that year (Voodoo Beach Party), the band quickly released a series of full-length projects -- Southern Culture on the Skids, Too Much Pork for Just One Fork, For Lovers Only and Ditch Diggin'. SCOTS's 1995 session for Geffen, Dirt Track Date, looked like it was going to be the band's breakthrough, selling 262,000 copies and garnering some national attention. However, the follow-up, Plastic Seat Sweat, moved fewer than a quarter of that number, and the band parted ways with the label. It's a relationship that still troubles Miller.

"I was amazed that Geffen never wanted to make a video. I mean, look at us! We've always been a really visual band," he says, stating the obvious about a group whose "costumes" include vintage bowling shirts, overalls, hot pants and bouffant hairdos. As if to emphasize the point, in the new CD booklet, the band poses in front of rusted cars, inside dive pool halls and -- Miller points out with pride -- in the same cabins that Robert Mitchum made semifamous in the white-trash classic Thunder Road.

"The amazing thing about the South is that it can be represented in so many different ways, from high literature like Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O'Connor right down to exploitations like Macon County Line and Walking Tall," says Miller, who, not surprisingly, has an encyclopedic knowledge of Southern pop culture. "I mean, I grew up watching Hee Haw and loved it. Still do."

Having been around for some time, the band has earned a number of perks, including a fried-chicken clause in its contract for every live show. Tossing out pieces of the Southern snack from the stage has long been a SCOTS tradition, though it has posed problems in the past.

"We used to have to get it ourselves. Have you ever tried to find fried chicken at ten-thirty at night?" Miller says, adding that during a chicken run once in Mobile, Alabama, the band even got held up by a gunman. "From now on, it's going to be 'No chicken, no show.' It's in our contract in big bold letters."

Miller also has a fowl memory about a previous trip to Houston. "There was one show we did at the Satellite Lounge where we had a girlfight on stage," Miller reminisces wistfully. "These two girls from the audience got into a fight over who was going to throw the chicken. They were kicking and screaming and finally fell into our dressing room, which was just behind the stage. Messed it up pretty good, too."

By the way, Miller says, if the booker for George Dubya's inaugural balls is still looking for talent, Southern Culture on the Skids stands ready to serve its country and new leader. The band will even let the new prez throw out the chicken.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero