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Southern Skids on the Culture 

Rick Miller and company have been turning stereotypes inside-out for 20 years

Southern Culture on the Skids has become a regional fixture for its cockeyed, rockabilly-driven take on Dixie stereotypes. Because the band really does come from the South, its loving pokes -- whether directed at the cuisine ("Banana Puddin'," "Fried Chicken and Gasoline") or the culture ("Doublewide," "White Trash") -- turn cliches on their heads.

Instead of calling Southern Culture's publicist, I wandered down to where I thought the members might actually be -- the Local 506 in Chapel Hill, where alt-country rocker Rosie Flores was playing. Sure enough, I encountered Southern Culture's statuesque bass player Mary Huff and drummer Dave Hartman at the bar, and arranged to meet Huff and guitarist Rick Miller at their Kudzu Ranch studio the next evening.

Located some 30 miles west of Chapel Hill in rustic Mebane, SCOTS' studio looks like an overly large, cinderblock, state maintenance building. But Miller swears by the room's crisp, live sound.

He said the band had been hoping to release a new album this year, but stuff like touring overseas and pregnancy (Miller's wife's having a baby) put a crimp on those plans. Instead, the band is focusing on doing a covers album and live DVD to hold fans over.

"We're picking up touring in the fall, making money for everyone, because she's due in February," Miller says of balancing music with baby.

The covers project turned out to be a lot of fun for the band. "It's also really easy when we're playing a lot or touring a lot to whip off one or two (cover songs)," he said.

The tunes range from rock to country, from the Byrds to George Jones. It even includes a countrified cover of T. Rex's classic glam-rock shuffle "Life's A Gas." Another track is a song that's become a sizzling live staple for SCOTS, "These Boots Are Made For Walking." Jessica Simpson recently covered that one for The Dukes of Hazzard soundtrack.

"I heard about it a few weeks ago," said Miller. "A friend asked, 'Have you seen the Jessica Simpson version? It's hot.' I'm like, 'Do you mean the music's good?' And he's like, 'What music?'

"The next week, we get back from Chicago and find out we're on The Dukes of Hazzard soundtrack, (too)," he said, referring to the set's inclusion of Southern Culture's "Soul City." Miller said he's delighted to be sharing CD space with Jessica: "The more of those records she sells the richer we get. So, go, Jessica, go. Never thought I'd be saying that. The best thing she ever did was those acne commercials."

This isn't SCOTS' first soundtrack, but Miller isn't satisfied yet. "We've had Dukes of Hazzard and The Longest Yard, but when are they going to really get down in it and do a real Southern mover like Macon County Line or Deliverance? That'd be a good vehicle for Owen Wilson."

When he's not contemplating cinema, Miller said he's been listening to the title track of the Kinks' Muswell Hillbilly album, another song SCOTS does on the covers album.

"It's great because it's about the dislocation of the working class," Miller said of the tune. "Which is appropriate because we're getting a Wal-Mart at the top of the hill here (in Mebane). I thought on our next album it'd be cool to write about that, 'County Cul-de-sac -- built a million-dollar shack on my country cul-de-sac.' It's the asphalt invasion and its coming."

The over-development of areas from Charlotte to the Triangle has Miller seriously concerned -- and inspired. "So many people have moved into the Southeast and the Sun Belt in the last 10 to 15 years, that's where some of our stuff comes from, playing with these Southern stereotypes and culture but also with the idea of invasion," Miller said. "They're under pressure, those characters and strange people. All of a sudden, they're dislocated in their own backyard. Especially with all the technology companies from the North and West, diluting things and homogenizing things. And there's resistance. That kind of makes what we do interesting."

Someone once described Southern Culture on the Skids as the Ramones on rockabilly. There's a sense of truth to it. Like the Ramones, SCOTS has an identifiable look and has remained true to its musical style. The band is often dismissed as a hillbilly gimmick, but as Miller says, what band isn't a gimmick?

"If you get up on a stage and want to wear corduroy pants and a flannel shirt, you're copping a look also," said Miller. "Being in bands before, I realized to really separate yourself from the crowd is really important. So I gravitated toward this whole Southern culture thing. But I really love the South. There's so many characters and it's so fun to write about. I used to love reading Southern novels. I just figured, man, the sooner we can get an identifiable look and a thing going, the better."

Certainly there's no arguing with the band's longevity (SCOTS has been together for 20 years!) and a loyal fan base that enjoys the band's raucous, fun-loving antics, from the banana-pudding food fights to Huff's outrageous 50s-style wigs. (She admits to having more than 130 of them.)

"We've never been a huge success, we've never been a huge failure," said Miller. "We've had moderate success. Manfred Jones of the Woggles said, 'You're the only middle-class band I've known. They're all either hugely rich and famous, forgotten or unknown.'

"I think the big key for us is that we have our thing. We have our niche. We have our shtick. As much as people want to give us shit for it, it's entertaining to a lot of people and it affords us a career. Because it's not just about music, it's about entertainment. It's about having a good time. We don't let art get in the way of having a good time and hopefully we never will."

Southern Culture on the Skids plays at 10pm Friday at the Visulite Theatre. Tickets are $15 in advance; $17 day of show. For more info, call 704-358-9200 or see www.visulite.com.

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