Rick Miller, guitarist and frontman for Southern Culture on the Skids, has just returned from a European tour, and he's got trouble. "I've got to get all this cheese out of my system," he says. "People over there eat cheese with everything." To make matters worse, "what they call sausage is this clear, gelatinous stuff.
"At least in the South," he adds with pride, "we doctor it up so you can't tell you're eating organs."
For the Skids--a skin-and-bones trio from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that also includes Miller's girlfriend, bassist Mary Huff, and stand-up drummer/percussionist Dave Hartman--food is a very important thing. On Dirt Track Date, their major-label debut (released by Geffen), bacon, biscuits, fried chicken and oatmeal pies are key song subjects. In addition, you'll find heaping helpings of lyrical references to other Southern delicacies, including fast cars (the title track) and insects ("Firefly," "Greenback Fly").
But while these and other investigations of trailer-trash themes are often hilarious, the musicians deliver them in the finest tradition of hip-shaking American roots music. "Nashville Toupee," "Come and Get It," and "She's My Little Biscuit Eater" ("She's my teenage bride, she's half my size/She kneads my dough and I watch it rise") would get by on humor and cornpone kitsch alone, but the Skids back up the fun and games with a turnip truck full of chops and virtuoso playing. Hillbilly stylings and reverb-drenched surf riffs are only a few of the ingredients that make up this zesty stew. Musical inspirations such as Link Wray, Chuck Berry and Hasil Adkins are also on the menu, contributing to a sound that combines the hepped-up energy of Fifties wildcat rockabilly with the spookiness of Howlin' Wolf and the early Cramps, the dexterous twang of Junior Brown and the raw earthiness of deep blues.
Miller, who uses Danelectro guitars ("You can't imitate cheap," he notes) and Fender reverb units to conjure up his menacing guitar tone, helped form the band in 1984, during a period when he was working toward a master's degree at the University of North Carolina. After the act's original bass player quit in 1987, Huff, a native of Roanoke, Virginia, joined up, bringing Hartman on board a short time later. In the nine years since, the Skids have played as many as 250 shows a year, logging thousands of miles across the highways and blacktops of America. Along the way, they also issued three fine independent albums and a handful of EPs--but signing with Geffen last year pushed them to another level. They've since gigged in the U.S., Japan, Australia and Europe, helping to push their latest effort over the 100,000-copy sales mark--a figure higher than the one achieved by the band's entire pre-Geffen catalogue.
It helps that this Date is an enjoyable one. The disc's opening cut, "Voodoo Cadillac," is a snakey number that echoes Creedence Clearwater Revival and Slim Harpo. "White Trash," with its thundering drums, sheet-metal guitars and overdriven vocals, is a punky, primal rocker, while "Skullbucket" and "Make Mayan a Hawaian" satisfy the guitar-instrumental jones. Huff, with a country-girl voice chock-full of sass and swagger, blazes through "Nitty Gritty," matching the intensity the band as a whole displays throughout the stripped-down, funky "Camel Walk" (now in occasional rotation on MTV) and "Soul City," a place where "It don't matter/If your pants are shiny/If your dick is big/If your dick is tiny."
"'Soul City' came about," Miller says, "after we played at Junior Kimbrough's place down in Mississippi." The Skids, who make a point of visiting obscure music venues while they're on the road, spent a night at bluesman Kimbrough's private juke joint. Miller recalls, "In a shack in the middle of a cotton field, we saw some of the best dancing ever--white folks and black, all having a ball."
The song, whose title refers to a failed black utopian community started in North Carolina in the late Seventies, serves as a credo of sorts for the Skids. "It doesn't matter where you come from," Miller states. "At our shows, you can have a good time."
Along with frenetic instrumentals and reworked rarities like "Carve That Possum" and "Great Atomic Power," a typical Skids date also includes some unique forms of crowd participation. On any given night, audience members may find themselves playing a drum solo on Hartman's football-helmeted head or banging pots and pans to a nitro-charged surf tune. And during "Eight Piece Box" (an itchy, tremolo-heavy live staple that's also on Dirt Track Date), bystanders are invited to climb on stage to dance and eat chicken. Listeners love it--particularly a woman at a Skids appearance last year.
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"We were playing the Claremont Lounge, one of the more seedy strip clubs in Atlanta," Miller remembers. "And one of the club's dancers got on stage to dance and eat chicken." Her provocative performance, however, involved enjoying the drumsticks and wings in a more southerly locale, gynecologically speaking. "Let's just say she's lucky we didn't order the 'Cajun spicy' chicken that night," Miller says, laughing. The dancer--according to Miller, "Her name was Blondie, and she was peroxided at both ends"--then tossed the chicken into the audience, where a handful of women in the crowd proceeded to eat it. "We quit playing the song for a week after that," Miller admits, "because we knew no audience could top that one."
The Skids will have plenty of opportunities to discover if that's true; they'll keep touring for several more months prior to a planned break in Chapel Hill. "We've been on the road for about 300 days of the past year," reveals Huff, "and as good as it is, there are days when it seems like 500. I'm looking forward to cleaning up my house, listening to my records and raking up the leaves from the last two years."
After that, the Skids will hit the trail once more, this time heading to the West Coast before returning to Japan and Europe again. So how's the fried chicken in Europe? "We had some in Germany that wasn't too bad," Miller says. "It was a little gamey, but at least there wasn't any buckshot in it."
Southern Culture on the Skids, with the Rugburns. 9:30 p.m. Friday, July 19, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, $7.35, 433-3399 or 830-