Southern Culture on the Skids guitarist Rick Miller is on his front porch, relaxing in the unseasonably warm weather when we reach him. It’s tempting to ask if he’s got his straw cap on and a cold can of Bud between his legs, given the characters in their songs and the cheap hat and overalls he’s often outfitted in on stage, like some trailer park refugee. When we ask if he’s trying to fulfill the stereotype, Miller chuckles, “I was born into one. Only the world looks at it as a stereotype. It happens to be my reality.”
Indeed, SCOTS’ light-hearted country-rockabilly send-ups of white trash culture were born in the belly of the beast. Miller grew up in the sticks. The family on his mother’s side were farmers, while his dad’s side were artists, musicians, and vaudeville performers. Later, he’d live in an outlying area of North Carolina’s Research Triangle along a hilly, two-lane country road.
So the targets of satirical ripostes like “Barnyard Ballbuster,” “Liquored Up and Lacquered Down,” and “My Neighbor Burns Trash” are generally related to people Miller’s known. And for all the humorous bite, there’s a loving undercurrent to the songs that makes Miller a lot more Mark Twain than Dennis Miller.
“My parents lived in a small tobacco town,” Miller recalls. “Growing up with that and working in the mobile home factory every summer, I met real characters of the kind you didn’t see in Chapel Hill. Very unique people, you know? A touch on the criminal side, yes. And they’re dreamers, too. They’ve always got a scheme or something up their sleeve.”
Those initial inspirations have served Miller & Co. well for nearly 30 years, the last quarter century with drummer Dave Hartman and bassist Mary Huff. Though the brand of redneck humor has pigeonholed them in some cases, they’ve always been a pretty versatile crew. It’s hardly their only subject matter, but when you write memorable songs like “Pig Pickin'” that begin with a “yee-haw” and proceed to conflate sex and finger-licking barbecue (“most of all I miss her smoky meat,” Miller sings), that’s what you get.
Certainly their musical tastes are pretty diverse. Though country and rockabilly are at the center of Miller’s interests, surf, psychedelica, psychobilly, swamp boogie, and even Mariachi rock have made their appearances. Their 2007 album Countrypolitan Favorites featured covers of T. Rex’s “Life’s a Gas,” the Kinks’ “Muswell Hillbilly,” and the Byrds’ “Have You Seen Her Face.” Then on their last full-length, Kudzu Ranch, they crashed Nirvana into Pink Floyd on “Come as You Are/Lucifer Sam.”
“Even though we identify regionally with a lot of the content of our songs, the musical influences come from all over the place, so very few people get it,” Miller says. “The last few albums haven’t even had songs about banana pudding or anything like that. I don’t mind that. It’s given us a career, really, but I think there is more to us than that.”
Their latest is Zombified. It isn’t entirely new, since it was issued as an eight-song EP in Australia in 1998, but it never saw a proper release in the U.S. The collection includes a spooky instrumental cover of Creedence Clearwater’s “Sinister Purpose” and five new songs, including a couple originally intended for the horror movie Blood Feast II: Buffet of Blood. (It went straight to video before they could get the filmmakers the songs.)
This followed a re-release last May of their out-of-print Santo Swings EP from 1996, featuring — aside from several Latin-surf-Mariachi flavored numbers — a sweet cover of Slim Harpo’s “Baby Scratch My Back.” Lately Miller’s been thinking about doing something that incorporates the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and the lush polyester sound of 1970s Nashville.
“It’d be that West Coast country meets Nashville, Nancy Sinatra/Billy Strange-style production,” Miller says. “I love a lot of his stuff, and it could just be a Mary solo record basically, called something like If You Got to Go-Go, Go Country.”
Will they be handing out banana pudding or throwing fried chicken into the audience as they frequently do at the end of their shows? What about the appearance of a masked wrestler? Miller shrugs. “We’ll see what happens. Every show is like a chemistry experiment. You don’t know what you’ll get until you start adding beer and rock ‘n’ roll.