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Southern Culture on the Skids' Rick Miller talks about a new album, an exhibition, and a reach-around

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The only way Southern Culture on the Skids is ever getting into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame is if they buy tickets. But the off-beat surf/rockabilly trio from Chapel Hill just received their own exhibit at the Wilson Library on the University of North Carolina campus. It's a part of the museum's Southern Historical Collection, and it's entitled, Lard Have Mercy. It traces SCOTS' three decades of unbuckled and unabashed white-trash musical mayhem, from early classics like "Chicken Shit Farmer" and "Eight Piece Box" to crowd favorites "Camel Walk" and "Banana Pudding."

"It means more to me than any sort of music award," says SCOTS guitarist Rick Miller. "It's pretty neat. They did an opening for us and they had PBRs, probably for the first time in there, and some banana pudding, and chicken wings. They tell me it's been popular. It was supposed to come down in September, and it's still up."

The band released a self-titled EP in 1985, endured some lineup changes, and then re-emerged in 1990 with Miller, statuesque honey-throated bassist Mary Huff, and bespectacled stand-up drummer Dave Hartman. They released three full-length albums before signing with Geffen, debuting their 1996 commercial breakthrough Dirt Track Date. It was anything but an instant success.

"It wasn't until that record was out for eight months before radio got into 'Camel Walk,'" Miller recalls. Back then, individual disc jockeys could drive songs' popularity. "They would say, 'Hey, I like this song. I'm going to play it on my station,' and then the radio people at Geffen, are like, 'Oh yeah, let's push it! This guy's playing it.'"

The song combined a Middle-Eastern-tinged surf-guitar lick — Dick Dale is, after all, Lebanese — with some barnyard stomp, heavy on the cowbell and oatmeal pie. It proved to be a minor hit, and they followed a year later with Plastic Seat Sweat. (The flames-adorned recliner on the cover is featured at the UNC exhibit.) It's not their strongest release, as it suffered from exhausting tours and not enough R&R-time between albums.

Southern Culture subsequently left Geffen and made their way to major indie label TVT for 2000's fine Liquored Up and Lacquered Down. They'd go to Yep Roc for 2004's underrated Mojo Box, which features SCOTS classics "Doublewide," "'69 El Camino," and their ode to marital power, "The Wet Spot."

Though known for their cornpone parody and white-trash cultural criticism, they are not circumscribed by it. The band has made discs dedicated to masked Mexican wrestlers and zombies, and they recently made a Record Store Day-release with B-52s frontman Fred Schneider called "Party at My Trouse."

"It's important to me, the band and I think for our careers, that we keep working on new, original material, no matter what direction it may take," Miller says.

On 2007's album, Countrypolitan Favorites, they roam wildly and free-spirited over everything from rock (The Who's "Happy Jack" and T. Rex's "Life's a Gas") to classic country (Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love," George Jones' odd, period-specific wife-swapping ode, "Let's Invite Them Over") to peculiar oddities (the western swing "Engine Engine #9" and the '60s country-pop hit "Wolverton Mountain").

They continued that playful spirit into 2010's Kudzu Ranch, which features covers like a mashup of Nirvana's "Come As You Are" and Pink Floyd's "Lucifer Sam." Kudzu Ranch ended a six-year gap between original albums. Miller hadn't intended for it to take so long again, but last year's Dig This, which revisits their 1994 album Ditch Digging, took longer than intended.

"We did that just to get the publishing. It was a money move. But we figured it'd be sort of fun, so we just kind of went with it," Miller says.

Over the years, SCOTS has grown to a quartet at times, adding keyboardist Chris Bess for a stretch in the '90s and early 2000s, and more recently guitarist Tim Barnes. But Barnes became a father, and SCOTS has returned to a trio, with their latest recordings reflecting that back-to-basics approach.

"We really kept it between the three of us this time around," Miller says. "The songs that we did do are much more minimal and driven by melody and harmony-singing between Mary and me."

While the album's not yet complete, Miller's written the first half-dozen or so tunes, and they've set a few of them down to tape. Some songs are reminiscent of the band's earliest days.

"We used to open up for ourselves as more of a folky, country act with a swampy vibe called the Pine Cones," says Miller. "When we didn't have the money to pay an opening band, we would come out in different clothes, play a different setlist, then come back as Southern Culture on the Skids.

"This kind of harks back to that material," Miller continues. "It's still electric, so maybe the Electric Pine Cones. At least that's how we started. But you know, we just lose our focus a little bit every once in a while and come up with something cool and different. So I'm still not exactly sure what it's going to be like. It always ends up coming out as its usual damn mishmash."

Being "museum-ized" wasn't SCOTS' only honor this year. Miller believes "Camel Walk" is the basis for a new Weird Al Yankovic tune about name-droppers and publicity-hounds, "Lame Claim to Fame." The video/song features Weird Al in overalls and plaid, the kind of redneck garb frequently worn by Miller. According to SCOTS frontman, Yankovic lifts the song's melody minus a single note. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but he wishes Yankovic had just covered the damn song.

"Flattery's nice," he says, "but the reach-around royalty would've been even better."

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