Southern Culture at the Chelsea West Fest Saturday

IMG_7393Chelsea West Fest is this Saturday in what us long-toothers call West Ghent. The fun begins at noon at the corner of Orapax Street and Raleigh Avenue with food trucks and music, lots of music. And beer, of course. Smartmouth and The Birch are just around the corner.

Our friends, The Esoteric Ramblers open with a set of their beer songs at 1 p.m. followed by The Wet Boys, The Lonely Tear Drops, Gina Dalmas and the Cow Tippin’ Playboys, Mudd Helmet and the headliner, Southern Culture on the Skids at 8:30.

The festival benefits a great cause, Hope House. Get tickets at Chelsea West Fest. They’re only $10.

Here is my preview interview with Southern Culture on the Skids.

      An opinion piece in a major newspaper complains “When Did White Trash Become Normal?” and sees it as symbolic of a “disintegrating society.” (Ok, it was in The New York Post by an author at one of those right wing publishing houses so you can’t take it too seriously). A series of white trash zombie novels finds an adoring audience. There’s a blog titled “White Trash Buddhist,” which is all you need to know.

And, in a clear sign we are descending into the bowels of hell and damnation, the country-fried rock group, Southern Culture on the Skids, was the subject this summer of a retrospective exhibit on the august campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Lard have mercy.

Guitarist and songwriter Rick Miller says he certainly wasn’t expecting to be exhibited as part of southern folklife series, but it fits

“They re’ obsessed with cultural phenomenon. That’s sort of what we were,” he adds. “We were kind of surprised, of course. That would be the last thing we kind of thought about.”

The exhibit featured instruments, gig posters. photos and, of course, the pinstriped La-Z Boy recliner on the cover of “Plastic Seat Sweat,” the group’s last major-label album. This, after all, is a band that refers to itself as “the legendary bards of downward mobility.”

“The curator came out and saw all the stuff we have. Fans send us stuff, everything from needlepoint to neon signs with our names covered with barbed wire,” Miller says. “And it was the heyday of the rock ‘n roll poster. The scene was different then. It’s just old enough where it’s become of interest to a different generation of people who started looking at it as collectible or cultural, if that’s what it is.”

When Miller started the band at UNC, he says he figured it would just be something to do while in school. “But it just kind of clicked. We went through a couple of changes early and we found ourselves in the right place at the right time to kind of develop as a band, ” he says. “We were able to hit the road. Nobody had any obligations whatsoever.”

Rather than try to label their strange brew of country, rockabilly, swamp soul, punk and surf guitar, let’s just say the band plays with attitude. Food, cars, booze, and sex (for which food is a metaphor, of course) play major roles in their songs.
Expect fried chicken to be a part of the show at the Chelsea West Fest on Oct 4 when the band anchors a day of music with an 8:30 show following a number of local acts including the Esoteric Ramblers, Gina Dalmas, and Mudd Helmet.
Told there will be plenty of locally-brewed suds on hand, Miller doesn’t miss a beat. “We go good with beer,” he says.

Yes, they do.

This is a band whose song titles include “”Fried Chicken and Gasoline,” “Eight Piece Box,” “Camel Walk,” “Dirt Track Date,” ” Daddy Was a Preacher But Mama Was a Go Go Girl” and “My House Has Wheels.”

When it comes to that white trash material, Miller says simply, “It’s where we’re from.”

“The beauty of it is I think I could go out and drive around for an hour or two in my car and find enough interesting subjects for songs. Most of them are about where we’re from and that kind of defines who you are. We do it with a sense of humor and a sense of entertainment. The thing about the South is it’s got so many cultural identifiers. Its own cooking. It’s all such a rich heritage. Like the food, it will kill you if you’re not careful.”

So there’s a deep vein of material every time Miller sits down to write.

“Some songs come to you like overnight. Some songs take a while,” he says. “A lot of times I get a guitar riff or some with catchy phrase and just kind of go from there. I’ve always felt writing songs is like making a B movie. If you come up with a good title and a good poster, that’s it. You just come up with a good chorus or hook or catchy phrase and work from there.”
The band’s “My Neighbor Burns Trash” came from Miller’s neighbor burning her trash. “She was mad at me that we didn’t join her church so she burned almost every night,” he adds.

The band formed in Chapel Hill in 1983 and went through a few changes before finding its sound, a sound that saw it appear on MTV and the occasional late night show. The current lineup of Miller, bassist Mary Huff (she of the stunning blonde bouffant), and drummer Dave Hartman coalesced in 1988 and quit their day jobs to do the band fulltime in 1991, a red letter (or in-the-black letter) day for Miller.

scots2That year the band released its classic “Too Much Pork for Just One Fork,” a follow to the EP “Voodoo Beach Party.” A year later, they issued “For Lovers Only” and then a fwe more EPs before “Ditch Diggin,” which they recently re-recorded as “Dig This” as a means to get back their publishing rights (and feed a few mouths).

Their strong touring attracted Geffen Records, which signed the group in 1995 and released “Dirt Track Date,” a collection of new and re-recorded tunes that sold more than 250,000 copies. “Plastic Seat Sweat” followed and was their last release on Geffen before a string of albums for Yep Roc and, eventually, their own label, Kudzu Records.

“We kinda got lucky there with what we thought was a total filler of a song — “Camel Walk” — and got hooked up on the radio and things just kind of took off for us,” he says. “All of a sudden it exploded. We’d been around long enough that we figured if we kept maybe 20 percent of the people we could sustain a career. “

He took some of that money and built a studio so they wouldn’t need a record label advance to put out albums. “All those kinds of things have kept us going,” he says. “We had a concept musically, but we also took care of things on the business side. All those things and us being able to make our own decisions through those 30 years is what’s kept us together.”

The group put out a Halloween collaboration with Los Straitjackets and the Fleshtones last year. An EP collaborating with Fred Schneider of the B-52s is due in early 2015 as well as a dance remix of some tunes. They’re also working on a new record, material to be determined. Miller notes they used to open for themselves as a sort of folkie acoustic group with harmonies called the Pinecones and he’s thought about going in the direction. “But you never know what happens when you get going and you want to turn the amps up,” he adds.

The group earned its first mention in Rolling Stone in years thanks to a fan, Weird Al Yankovic, who was “inspired” by “Camel Walk” and used the riff for his “Lame Claim to Fame” off his chart-topping “Mandatory Fun” album. In the video, an animated guy wearing a trucker hat brags about serving jury duty with Art Garfunkel and sharing an elevator with Christian Slater. “My best friend’s brother was an extra in Wayne’s World 2,” Yankovic sings. “I got me an email from the prince of Nigeria… well, he sure sounded legit.”

Miller has never met Weird Al, but knows he’s a fan. Al worked up a concept for a video for the group’s “House of Bamboo” when they were on Geffen that never got made. “He changed it enough so he doesn’t have to pay us any royalties. He’s a smart guy,” Miller adds. “Now I have my own lame claim to fame, what can I say?”

The band doesn’t tour the hundreds of dates per year of the past. There are families, now. But Miller says it will be good to get back to Norfolk, where they used to play a seafood restaurant on Colley Avenue. “We had the best time,” he says. “It was one of those places where you could get fried flounder. There were always some older couples eating when we were loading in. Those blue haired ladies would be coming out as the punk rock blue hairs would be coming in. They’d pass each other and give a nod to the hair color.”

Those days didn’t give rise to a song, but a night playing a joint in Harrisonburg where the three or four patrons weren’t listening did incubate one. They’d bought a bucket of chicken for dinner, but were running late so they hadn’t had a chance to nosh. In the middle of a set, Miller looked over and saw a homeless guy digging in. “If you’re going to eat our chicken, come on up and dance with us,” Miller told him. ‘He got up and did the homeless shuffle while eating a piece of chicken and the whole bar went nuts, all four people. So we thought this might work wtih some good-looking women if it worked that well with a homeless guy.”

It became a part of the act most nights. But it’s not the reason the band’s contract rider calls for fried chicken with the admonishment that there will be no show without it.

That started after a night in Mobile, Ala. when the band went out to a sketchy neighborhood to get the chicken for the song, “Eight Piece Box.” While they were in scoring the good, their sound man was held up at gunpoint in the van outside.    “We figured we don’t want to die getting chicken for this song,” he adds. “Let’s let the promoter get it.”

     That’s Southern Culture on the Skids. White trash, but smart white trash.

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