Southern Culture on the Skids, Part 1

Musical Mutations and Swamp Tones:
Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids Talks About the Sounds that Get Him Off

Although I love their hokey sense of cornpone humor, and I wouldn’t alter a thing about them, sometimes it irritates me that so many writeups I read about Southern Culture on the Skids focus solely or primarily on that aspect of the band. I get it – they’re goofy and fun, they personify and lovingly exaggerate a lot of wacky Dixieland stereotypes, and they get folks onstage dancing with ’em while chomping on fried chicken. It’s like Green Acres meets “Green Onions,” and what’s not to adore about that?

What sometimes gets lost amid the laffs is just what outstanding musicians they are. Intact since 1988 (following a few formative years with other lineups), this Chapel Hill-based trio of guitarist/vocalist Rick Miller, bassist/vocalist Mary Huff and stand-up drummer Dave Hartman is flat-out amazing. Without resorting to needless flash or attention-hungry showboating, Miller in particular is one of the most spectacularly gifted guitar players I’ve ever seen. He juggles a lot of styles – country, garage rock, surf, rockabilly and soul to name just a few – which is reflective of his deep love of a wide swath of music and musicians. So, when he called up on a recent afternoon from a hotel lobby in Newport, Kentucky in the midst of yet another string of live dates for SCOTS, I decided the focus our conversation on the music that’s made the most impact on him over the years, the sounds that molded him into the stellar musician he is…

Rick Miller: “Well, you know, I lived in North Carolina from about six to 12, in a little tiny town called Henderson, where we had one radio station. Actually they had an FM radio station, and an AM radio station. And I remember my first transistor radio, you know, campin’ out in the neighbors’ yard with tents and stuff, listening to the AM radio station. And the town was about 50-50 black and white, so they’d play all kinds of great music on there, and that’s what I think first exposed me to some stuff… and it also showed me that it’s all music – it doesn’t matter, right? It all works. ‘Cause they used to play… probably the first song that really got me goin’ was ‘Green Onions,’ Booker T & the MG’s. And then I remember they’d play Aretha Franklin, they’d play Buck Owens, they’d play The Beatles, right? They’d play The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds. They had a very diverse audience, and they couldn’t afford to alienate anybody! Everybody had to be included. So I think that was my first introduction to music, and I think I’ve kinda kept that outlook on music my whole life.”

Obviously, radio at this point is micro-segregated, and it’s rare that you find a good or unique station. Mostly, the same stuff is played everywhere you go in the country. But then somebody will put their iPod on shuffle and it’s like that little AM station was – all over the place. Most people still enjoy a wide variety of styles of music, but you can’t ever find stations that reflect that.

“Exactly, and it’s funny… I don’t really do streaming, but I had to get a Spotify account for the band, so we could do the band page on there and stuff. And one day I was just foolin’ around on there, and… I happen to like Slim Whitman. And I knew a lot of Slim Whitman songs, but I was amazed how I could do searches for Slim Whitman titles, and I could find all these other artists that had covered [the same] songs! And so I made a playlist called ‘Slim Whitman vs. The World,’ with him doin’ ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,’ and then it had Willie Nelson’s version. And ‘The Wayward Wind’ by Slim and then ‘The Wayward Wind’ by Neil Young. It was really funny, but it also kinda sums it all up, too – good music is good music.

“Now, as far as guitar players, like I said, I think Steve Cropper, his licks in ‘Green Onions’ probably started it all [for me]. And then, back then in Henderson, the only place you could buy music, we’d either buy albums at Roses department store – there were a lot of ‘em in North Carolina, in fact I think they were based in Henderson. But that’s where you got your albums, and then you bought your Top 40 that they played on the radio station at the Singer Sewing Center. That’s where you bought your 45s, because they had the chart from the local Top 40 radio station. And they’d service sewing machines! Obviously, maybe somebody’s husband was a DJ or something, but there was a connection there. They didn’t have 45s – the Top 40, anyway – at the Roses store, but they had bins of albums, and that’s where I bought my first guitar, right above the album bins at Roses. It was just some Japanese import that they sold there. Had a bunch of pickups and switches, and, you know, to a ten, 11-year-old kid, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I want that one!’ I think my parents liked it because…it was really quiet to strum. It was electric and they wouldn’t buy me an amp until I got better, hahaha!

“So, the next record I bought with, like, my own money – like lawnmowing money – it was a big choice between… I had heard ‘White Room’ on the radio station, and I had heard ‘Summertime Blues’ by Blue Cheer, right? And Blue Cheer’s album [cover] was way cooler, because it was like mock foil, like chrome – silver and blue. So I ended up buying the Blue Cheer record. Now, that’s some heavy guitar on that. But I bought it for that song, ‘Summertime Blues.’ And the thing was, when I’d go back and look at that and see who wrote it, it was Eddie Cochran. I said, ‘Who’s this Eddie Cochran guy?’ And it took me a couple years to track that [record] down. It wasn’t until we moved – we had to relocate again, because my dad switched jobs, to California. And once we were in California, they had record stores! And I found an Eddie Cochran record. And one of my favorite songs on that Eddie Cochran record was ‘Hallalujah, I Love Her So.’ It was Ray Charles. I mean, I knew who he was, but I didn’t know he did stuff this cool. So all of a sudden I was into Ray Charles! That was what was so fun about growing up when you and I grew up – we had great record stores, where you could go in and just go through the bins… I loved it. Find a song here, a cover there. Anyway, that’s how I learned a lot about music.”

You were curious enough to go back and find the sources of things you liked. I’m guessing that there were many Blue Cheer fans, or Who fans, who liked those versions of ‘Summertime Blues’ but never delved further into it.

“Well it was the best song on the record, I thought. And they didn’t write it. Who wrote it? Hahaha! That was sort of the way I operated. So I learned a lot of stuff that way. The radio was just horrible, too, by the time I was in junior high. It was just all kinds of schlocky stuff. And, you know, The Eagles and things like that, which I didn’t mind, but I just knew there was something else out there. Especially because I had some of these records. It was so hard to find the good music! Dave Edmunds was my savior. You know, when he did [‘I Hear You Knocking’], I was like, ‘That’s it! That’s the sound!’ I’d had glimpses of it. Elvis did some it, you know, but my parents weren’t Elvis fans, all we ever had in the house were like Big Band records and stuff. Or Columbia Records, right? Whoever was on Columbia Records. Because we were a member, and that’s how I got my records for a while. So I did have some Paul Revere & the Raiders records, Johnny Cash records, you know, anything that was on Columbia that looked cool, they’d get me like one record a month or something. But it just wasn’t what I was lookin’ for. The Paul Revere was great. I remember ‘Hungry’ was a great song. I mean, I like all that stuff now, but anyway, looking for that stuff – Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, the New Orleans thing – it all just kinda came from Dave Edmunds. He was my point on that. And then Commander Cody. He had that hit, ‘Hot Rod Lincoln,’ right? I loved that, too, and that kinda took me in the direction of Texas Swing, and Bob Wills. And then I kinda discovered Tower Records. I spent so much time there. It was open all the time.”

By the time you were living out in California, was surf music even a thing there at that point? Or was it considered too outdated?

“We lived in a place called Corona first, then we moved to San Diego. And when I got to San Diego, the whole surf culture thing was… I was always kind of infatuated with it, and I did surf, but I never really thought much about surf music. But what got me into that was … Well, first off, in high school, I hated all my friends’ music. All they’d wanna listen to was Queen and KISS, and I was like, I couldn’t go anywhere with ’em after a while, because I’d be subjected to this stuff. Not that that’s bad music, but I really liked stuff like the J. Geils Band, Full House – that’s the greatest live record I think I’ve ever heard! But I was still (and this is all kinda scattershot), I was still having to go back and work at my dad’s mobile home factory every once in a while, during the summer, in North Carolina. So I kinda never lost the Southern thing, for music. And I’d get introduced to everything from P-Funk, Allman Brothers, you know, blues, stuff that guys I knew were listening to there. Then I’d come back to California, and a lot of my friends were into punk rock, and through punk rock, I kind of rediscovered how much I loved rockabilly. And the whole Dave Edmunds thing. Because I’d go see these shows, like The Clash, and they’d have Ray Campi open for them! And then the little record stores – not necessarily Tower – but you’d go to the little record stores, and I remember I really liked some of the New Wave bands. They were all in the same record bin – it just said ‘New Wave.’ And it’d have everything from Elvis Costello to the Angelic Upstarts, to Ray Campi and The Blasters. Stuff like that, and it was just all in the same bin. They just looped it all together. If it wasn’t Fleetwood Mac, that’s where it was!”

I remember when Tom Petty was considered New Wave.

“Oh, totally. That’s where I bought that first album with ‘American Girl’ on it – in the New Wave bin! Hahaha! That’s the funnest way to find music, though. Anyway, I started to realize a lot of the stuff that I liked had reverb on the guitar. And I don’t know what it was, I think it was a used record store, but I went to some oldies bins and I just started lookin’ through stuff, and I picked up a Dick Dale record. And I was just blown away by how great it was. And then, I started lookin’ in the papers to see if any of these guys still played around, right? Sure enough, there was a place up in North County called the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, this old Quonset hut, Dick Dale was playing there. I gotta go! So I went to the Dick Dale show, and it was like me and a bunch of old surfer guys. I mean, surf music wasn’t popular at all, [but] he was still doing it, and he had a horn section, still had the Del-Tones, he was still married to his Hawaiian wife, and he was still living in Newport Beach, before all the bad stuff started happenin’. And I mean, it just blew my mind! I swear, I remember this: he came out with his chartreuse sparkle Stratocaster, and literally, his case was a surfboard! He came out and he opened it up, and he still wore shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. He was still the King of the Surf Guitar, he wasn’t the Father of Heavy Metal yet! So, it just blew me away, and from then, I just couldn’t get enough of it, and luckily, where I lived I could find a lot of old records, and new records – it started to become more and more popular.

“Another band that I really loved in California was The Crawdaddys, Ron Silva. They were just a local garage that played at, like, house parties and this punk rock club down on 5th Avenue called the Zebra Club. And they were my favorite band because they did all these old Pretty Things [songs], and Zombies and Stones and Chuck Berry, all this stuff. So I got really interested in all that stuff, too, and started looking into that punk British R&B stuff from the ‘60s, and learned a lot about that. A lot of it, I just had to find out on my own, but one thing would just kind of drive another, and drive another, and drive another.”

One thing about that punk and new wave movement of the mid ’70s through the early ’80s, a lot of the bands covered ‘50s and ‘60s songs. Like, The Sex Pistols covered Eddie Cochran, and The Who, and stuff like that. And there was that whole rockabilly revival aspect of it, too.

“Oh yeah, all of a sudden it was the Stray Cats, or the Polecats, all these bands, Levi Dexter…”

Even extending into The Cramps and Tav Falco, who did a more mutated version of it.

“That’s right, and Tav Falco was a big influence, as were The Cramps, on me personally. I used to be able to go see these guys in a small club in San Diego. ‘Cause everybody’d play L.A., and then they’d come down to San Diego, but that was kind of a backwater then. So they played smaller clubs and stuff. I saw The Cramps, and The Plimsouls, a lot of great bands. I never saw Tav until later, but we played his music all the time. Behind the Magnolia Curtain was the record – that was the one. And you know, Alan Vega – I loved ‘Speedway,’ and, uh… I can’t remember what else was on that record. ‘Jukebox Babe.’ That had a rockabilly thing going on, too. What I loved about all those bands is they were never purists. They were never just a revival act – they were revisionists. That’s what made it interesting! And that’s what keeps it going.”

I think in a similar way, that’s how SCOTS have approached your music. You’re not traditionalists, obviously. You twist it and turn it around and mix all of these different older things up into a fresh, fun mutation, and it makes it really come alive. 

“Right. Well, that’s the only way I think you can keep doing it and not become just a museum piece. That stuff just doesn’t do anything for me. I mean, I hand it to ‘em – all the guys who still wear the outfits, and [play] the right guitars, and [use] the right equipment and all that kinda stuff, and learn the songs note for note. But it just doesn’t float my boat. I like to see things mutate! Hahaha!”

Continue to Part 2