If ever a band name described its music, it is Southern Culture On The Skids. For over 35 years, the venerable Chapel Hill, N.C., group has played songs celebrating fried chicken, big hair and mobile-home living. Lead singer and guitarist Rick Miller said the band never intends to trash anyone, they just sing about what they know.
“It was easy to write songs about that,” said Miller. “The South is so unique. We have our own types of food and climate—all the things I like to write songs about. Not so much love songs, but songs about where you’re from, who you are, what you eat. Things like that just seemed easy to write songs about. With humor, too—it’s hard to really be serious all the time. That’s how we’ve kept doing it all these years, because it has stayed fun.”
The group’s many avid fans take that fun to a new level. Every show features audience participation during the song “Eight Piece Box.” The band brings buckets of fried chicken which the audience passes around, throws around the dance floor or just eats. That strange tradition started years ago at a show in Virginia.
“That was a total fluke,” said Miller. “We were playing at a Mexican restaurant in Harrisonburg, Va. This was way back when we had just written the song, this was probably 1990. We thought we’d try this new song, ‘Eight Piece Box.’ We break into it and there happened to be what looked like a homeless person that wandered in. The club owner had got us a bucket of fried chicken for dinner, which was in front of the stage. The guy came in and looked at me, then he looked at that box of chicken and he just grabbed a piece of chicken. I said, ‘If you’re going to eat our chicken, come on up and dance with us.’ So he got up there and was doing a little shuffle and eating on a drumstick. The people at the bar stopped what they were doing. The bartender stopped washing his glasses and they all were just mesmerized about what was going on. After that I thought, if we can do that to four people at a bar with a homeless guy, just think if we invited people from the audience up to do something like that.”
Southern Culture On The Skids (known to their fans as SCOTS) had an unlikely genesis. Miller was coaxed into starting a band with his roommate at the University of North Carolina, Stan Lewis. At first his bandmates were fellow students, but as they graduated and got other jobs, Miller kept the band going with drummer Dave Hartman and bassist Mary Huff, who also adds lead vocals on some songs.
“It started out really strong and then a couple people left, and it kind of ebbed and that’s when Mary and Dave joined,” said Miller. “That’s when we kind of woodshedded and came up with the band we are today.”
The trio bought a run-down house in the country they dubbed the Kudzu Ranch, since it was covered in the vine. All three members lived there for a year, then moved out and kept the place as a studio, which they still use. That do-it-yourself ethos is part of what makes the SCOTS unique. It was born out of necessity when the early lineups were not great at playing other peoples’ songs.
“The funny thing was we thought, well we’re not very good, let’s face it. So instead of spending a lot of time learning covers let’s just write our own songs,” said Miller. “So we started at a very early age just doing our own thing. My advice to aspiring band people was: Do your own thing, because you got it. Everything you do is right.”
The band got some love in the ‘90s thanks to some choice song placement in movies like “Happy Gilmore” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” SCOTS rode the indie-alternative wave to some moderate success and put out a series of albums on Geffen records. That success proved to be a blessing and a curse.
“We decided to leave Geffen because they had told us they wanted us to move in a direction that was more geared towards what I would consider teenagers,” said Miller. “At that time, I was in my mid-30s. I just wanted to keep doing the music like we were doing. They said, ‘We need to sell more records at malls and this demographic.’ It just started to get out of our control. They wanted us to work with certain producers who took almost every bit of our advance money. It’s just kind of crazy. The thing they would say was, ‘Well, you could be big. You could be huge. You could be successful.’ Everybody measures success in different terms. We just want to play our music. We want to make our art. We want to make our records.”
Two of their most popular albums released on Geffen were “Dirt Track Date” in 1995 and “Plastic Seat Sweat” in 1997. Last year SCOTS released “Bootleggers Choice,” an album of newly recorded versions of songs from that era. They were able to do that because Miller retained the copyright on his songs. Releasing the music themselves gives the band control over how they can release them.
“[Geffen] charged us too much money for CDs and they wouldn’t do vinyl, of course,” said Miller. “Our lawyer said, ‘Just re-record them. If you re-record them, they’re yours 100 percent.’ I can’t do anything the same way twice, but they’re close to the original versions. The words are the same and the basic arrangements are the same. We’ve gotten a lot better musically, so good or bad, sometimes that amateur, more primitive take is actually superior to one that is done by better musicians.”
Miller credits his band’s longevity to loyal fans all around the country who keep coming to shows and buying albums.
“We’re not huge or anything—we’re pretty much still a cult band—but that’s OK with me, because it allows us the freedom to do what we want,” said Miller. “We just like playing to be able to continue and make music. That’s success for us. I don’t want to be poor, but to be able to make a living and play our music for our fans. We have the best fans.”