The question, "Is Southern culture actually on the skids?" is one Rick Miller loves to answer.
"As far as the band name goes, the most resistance we ever got was up in the Northeast with writers and critics. Like, 'So what are you really trying to say? Is it rebel flags and bikers?' No, it's more like fried chicken and banana pudding," says the Southern Culture on the Skids singer/guitarist. "Whenever people ask us what our music is, I always tell them it's toe-sucking geek rock. It's kinda weird, but it feels good once you get used to it."
Miller, drummer Dave Hartman, and bassist/vocalist Mary Huff have been rockin' since forming in the North Carolina triangle in 1983. The trio hit the road this month behind their new, independently released studio album, The Kudzu Ranch.
"We all grew up in the South, but the South has changed so much, but I still find more inspiration in the Southeast than in any other place I've lived," says Miller. "The characters, the literature, the way people live, what we eat ... I'm just fascinated by it all."
Things slowed down slightly a few years ago after Miller had a kid. The band spent some time putting together a genre-bending album of cover tunes titled Countrypolitan Favorites. The tracks included renditions of the Who's "Happy Jack," T. Rex's "Life's a Gas," and Lynn Anderson's A.M. radio hit "(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden."
"My time was really tight at that time, and I thought it would fun to do a covers record," Miller remembers. "Some of those songs came out of left field. We all have varied influences. We didn't just want to do knock-offs, so we spent more time working up our own versions of the songs, which was actually harder than writing our own songs."
After the release of Countrypolitan Favorites, Miller and his bandmates took their time recording The Kudzu Ranch, tracking songs in bits and pieces over the last two years. Named after Miller's own recording studio and rehearsal facility, the new album rocks and swings with elements of '50s pop, Chicago blues, rockabilly, and country in the mix. Miller and Huff sing about good food, bad neighbors, naughty love games, and weird everyday quirks.
"There are a couple of songs on the new album where we used the original demos instead of the takes where we really took out time to do everything neat and nice," says Miller. "We thought some of the newer versions didn't have the right feel or didn't have enough edge. But that's the neat thing about having your own place and taking enough time to work things out."
Miller's studio is an old cinder block building with high ceilings, a former garage where a neighbor used to build muscle cars. Miller boasts a collection of vintage mics, amps, drums, and gear.
"The fun part about recording is rehearsing it up and getting excited about certain parts, but then when you get to lay it down on tape, it's all about editing," Miller says. "You start having to remove a lot of things. Sometimes, some of the things you don't, too, but you realize that they're superfluous or whatever. You have to make those decisions."
The self-editing worked. The Kudzu Ranch is far from a loose hodge-podge of tracks culled from various sessions. There's consistency and continuity. It's earthy and natural, devoid of contemporary studio trickery and cheap effects.
"It's always been important to me for us to have an organic sound. I think that's why our studio is named after a weed," Miller laughs. "If you're going to be a rock 'n' roll band, I just don't buy the digital samples and all the machinery. It can fuck the life out of a song. It can enhance the melody and sound huge on a dance floor, but rock 'n' roll has to be somewhat organic, warts and all."
While the tones, levels of distortion, and auxiliary instrumentation vary between tracks, the collection as a whole sounds like a tight power trio playing great old gear in a great sounding room. While a bit more refined, their methods in the studio haven't changed much since their earliest days.
"It's almost like the post-modern approach," Miller says. "You take whatever you want and use it however you want to use it. I hate to get pigeon-holed. And it's kind of boring to do the same record over and over again. I would say we're like the ultimate Americana band because we play all kinds of American music — surf music, rock 'n' roll, instrumental music, tinges of the blues. We mix it all up and put our own conceptual spin in it."
Longtime fans will dig the upbeat country-rock of "Pig Pickin'" and "Bone Dry Dirt," the John Lee Hooker boogie style of "It's the Music That Makes Me," or the classic guitar-pop of "Bad Boys" or "Highlife." Doused heavily in reverb, an instrumental rendition of Nirvana's "Come as You Are" sounds like a theme song from an old beach blanket flick from 1960.
"A lot of songs are character-driven, so there's a little bit of play acting before you get around to singing the words," says Miller. "You have your softer ballad voice, your rougher rockin' voice, and your bluegrass voice where you just want to harmonize."
If Miller and Huff occasionally sing like crazy old coots, the exaggerated Southernness of their efforts hasn't distracted the band from reaching a new generation of fans.
"A lot of younger folks come out and go, 'Wow, you guys rock ... but you're old,'" laughs Miller.