Within the oft shameful recidivism of rock & roll bands who uphold a commitment to “retro”-based music, Dixie-fried goons Southern Culture on the Skids stand gloriously apart. Although resolutely anchored in traditional hillbilly, rhythm & blues and vintage rock styles, this unhinged outfit deftly avoids entrapment in the connect the dots mire where so many others flounder; instead, they use tradition as a launching pad for some wildly unpredictable flights of just for-the-hell-of-it musical exploration, blasting off with a celebratory sense of liberation that creates both memorable recordings and a show stopping live presentation.
For over 20 years, the mad trio of frontman-guitarist Rick Miller, drummer Dave Hartman, and singer-bassist Mary Huff have been redefining the low life with a weird, delirious acuity. Formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina during the onerous death rattle of punk rock, Miller, Hartman and Huff determined to fill that void with the lurid white trash delights embodied by their avowed function as “the bards of downward mobility.” From their 1985 debut Voodoo Beach Party through to the current Countrypolitan Favorites CD, the group has rarely disappointed.
With a collective fixation on all things Southern, from the rich stash of trashy, vernacular American musical styles to the region’s vaunted down home cooking (which frequently manifests itself in the band’s trademark shtick—tossing fried chicken and banana pudding into their audiences—not to mention great songs like “Too Much Pork for Just One Fork”), this more than slightly demented threesome manages to encompass such a gaudy deck of sonic influences, back alley philosophy, withering humor and double-dipped Dixie pride that only such an unwieldy band name could begin to capture the essence of their odd modus operandi.
Their signature, unorthodox mix of anti-image and roots-twisting big beat rave-ups has served them well. Working the road relentlessly and steadily cranking out instant cult favorite albums (Ditch Diggin’, Dirt Track Date, Mojo Box, to name but a few) they have, at times, threatened to infect the mainstream itself; in the mid-’90s, they signed a contract with ‘major label’ Geffen Records and had a modest breakout with the 1995 song “Camel Walk,” but the perverse idiosyncrasies so ingrained to these three ultimately defy broad popular acceptance. Truth be told, they consistently operate at a far too sophisticated level for most of the American Idol-viewing audience to possibly ever appreciate.
While so much of their approach seems inextricably linked to the disposable realm of japing novelty, Southern Culture on the Skids often strike far deeper than their reputation for colorful high jinks implies. They not only perpetrate genuine punk-grade mayhem, they also reach for—and frequently achieve—a higher plateau of artistic expression than any such simple-minded, trash-obsessed group has a right to. It’s a straight-ahead brand of pop culture exploitation, reduced to the minimum pulp-essential elements, and working at that stripped down, bonehead level, the band manages to attain a communicative purity that’s closer to a hard bop jazz head than a pomade slathered, rockabilly numbskull. And these crazy little fuckers can really play it—get a load of “Plastic Seat Sweat,” the title track of their 1997 album, a ferociously legitimate, deep funk workout that’s positively dazzling in the intensity of its execution (great lyrics, too: “plastic seat sweat /it makes my balls wet”).
Part sociological examination, part sardonic revelation, Southern Culture on the Skids may necessarily spend too much time preaching to the converted, but their high-times, low brow gospel should be considered a mandatory aspect of the general public conversation on modern American life. If you’ve never tried out life down the skids, kiddies, this is definitely a don’t blow it opportunity.
Southern Culture on the Skids at Pappy & Harriet’s with Hillstomp, Pioneertown Palace (53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown), Saturday, October 20; (760) 365-5956, or visit www.pappyandharriets.com for directions. Shows begin at 8pm; Tickets $12