Sunday, June 27, 2010

Southern Culture on the Skids: Finger-Lickin' Good (1995)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

If the simultaneous ascendancy of Bill Clinton and Jeff Foxworthy hasn't convinced you that the South is rising again, maybe you should check out Dirt Track Date (DGC), the major-label debut by Southern Culture on the Skids.

Heating up their lyrics about white-trash decadence with a generously lubricated mixture of rockabilly, swamp choogle, and boozy blues, the one-woman, two-man band from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, comes on like genuinely stray cats who know it's both the heat and the humidity that put the woogie in the boogie.

They also know that by calling themselves Southern Culture anything and by looking like Jed Clampett's poor relations they run the risk of getting pigeon-holed as a "novelty act," the B-52s of hickdom.

"I'm getting tired of being written up as 'hayseed, crazy hillbillies--Go have a hoedown good time!'," fumes Mary Huff, Southern Culture's bass player and occasional lead singer. "Don't get me wrong. We are a total party band. But our music really rocks, too. We don't hide behind any kind of schtick."

And they don't. But if they had to they could probably hide behind Huff's hair, which is what is known in the vernacular as "big." Judging from the band's PR photos, her 'do adds at least a foot to her stature.

"It's hard work actually," she confesses, "but the end result is worth it. I prefer hot rollers to sponge rollers because they go up faster. Then I whip it up into a big concoction and tease it until it's nice and solid and stands up by itself. Then I need anywhere from a quarter to a half can of Aquanet. The fun part is putting it up. The nasty part is getting it out after a show in which it's been drenched in sweat. You have to rip out all the rats and start from square one the next day."

Huff has, in fact, become so identified with her hair that she maintains it "twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.” “Some days I think, 'I don't feel like doing this. I think I'll skip it.' Then I show up at the show and get yelled at and cursed at by people who have paid to see us. So I'm locked into doing it, I'm afraid."

Of course, most bands would kill for audiences that cared enough to curse at them for not doing their hair, and Southern Culture knows it. In fact, the band values its fans so much that it seldom come off the road. The constant touring provides the subject matter for at least one Dirt Track Date song, "Fried Chicken and Gasoline," a kind of "Running on Empty" for the kudzu crowd.

According to Rick Miller, the trio's all-purpose frontman and Huff's common-law husband, they also go out of their way to involve their fans in their shows.

"During 'Eight-Piece Box,' we'll hand out chicken. Sometimes we'll get a couple onstage and have them do the chicken mating dance while they slow-twist and feed each other drumsticks. Sometimes we'll get girls who look like they could eat five boxes of chicken, and they get up there and just devour it while we're playing! We even get girls who are exhibitionists and--well, let’s just say it's always an eye-opener. Chicken becomes a metaphor for many things."

Miller sees “Eight-Piece Box,” which comes replete with puns on "eating," "breasts," and "thighs," as an excavation of rock 'n' roll's original, double-entendre-enriched roots.

"A lot of people say, 'Oh, that's not serious,' but it's very serious. If you listen to old R&B or rock-and-roll, there are all kinds of songs like that. I also love the lyrics of a lot of '20s and '30s jazz songs, which can be so dirty--'Roll My Wiener,' 'Ice Cream Man,' all that stuff. It has that bawdy, earthy humor that I think is totally missing from a lot of records today."

Dirt Track Date's instrumentals convey the same dirty vibe. "Make Mayan a Hawaiian" staggers and sways like grass-skirted fat men in the wee hours of a luau. "Galley Slave" finds Huff making like an opera singer atop the sound of grunting oarsmen. "Skullbucket" rumbles with Link Wray-inspired raunch.

Miller likes telling stories about the group’s years on the road. Having opened for porn films, shared bills at prisons with the Void Brothers (a holy- rolling gospel act), and performed for naked spelunkers at a National Caving Association's all-night revelry, he has plenty to tell.

He’s even hung out with the rockabilly madman Hasil Adkins, whom Miller once watched eat a pound of raw ground round before a show.

"You know how it comes in those styrofoam trays with plastic over it? Well, he had made a little hole in the plastic, and, as he was talking to me, he pulled out strands and threw them into his mouth. He finished before the soundcheck started and then put on a hell of a show. I thought about trying it myself, but all I could think was 'trichinosis.'"

Raw hamburger, fried chicken, Aquanet, sweat -- it's all just more grease for Southern Culture's skids.

And they ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.

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