Rick Miller grew up in a small town and still lives in the sticks, turning that heritage into money as singer-guitarist for Southern Culture on the Skids. These days, you'll find trucker caps in Beverly Hills boutiques, and merlot drinkers eating pulled pork off picnic tables in Mebane, N.C., near where Miller lives. Even Wal-Mart has bought up land out in the neighboring boondocks, as suburbia creeps ever closer.
"It's all U.S.A, big and patriotic, flying the flag on the outside," Miller says, momentarily contemplating Sam Walton's box store legacy. "But once you walk inside, it's Chinatown."
Southern Culture or SCOTS as they're affectionately known by their fans just released their eighth studio album, Countrypolitan Favorites, a collection of 15 cover songs to which they lend their own inimitable touch. Having lovingly mined the trailer park milieu for humorous paeans to their cuisine ("Carve That Possum"), style ("'69 El Camino") and mores ("Dirt Track Date"), they've captured the comedy of redneck mobility better than anyone since The Beverly Hillbillies.
This makes SCOTS the perfect act to assay "countrypolitan," the name given Nashville's initial flirtation with the pop charts in the late '50s and early '60s, which brought success to such artists as Patsy Cline and Roger Miller. For the Southern Culture gang, it's as much a concept as a musical form.
"For us, countrypolitan was about taking from one genre and twisting it the best we could into another, or consciously changing it into something by adding our own elements to it," Miller says. "Like with [T. Rex's] 'Life's a Gas,' I listened to the words, and thought that would make a great kind of country duet. So we gave it that kind of treatment, even though we stayed pretty close to the original arrangement, with the distortion and the synthesizer. I find this kind of postmodern approach to making music really fun."
But Countrypolitan Favorites also serves another purpose it's an attempt to broaden the group's musical vocabulary. Twenty years ago when the current lineup came together, the intent was, of course, to create an identity that was "commercially viable and wasn't like everybody else."
SCOTS had actually begun three years earlier in 1985 with a different singer (Stan Lewis) and a sound that recalled the Cramps. When Lewis left, the group added a lap-steel and tried more of a country direction, which their old fans hated. The fall was quick: They went from selling out local bars to playing coffeehouses. When the rest of the band quit, the trio of Miller, statuesque singer-bassist Mary Huff and moon pie-faced drummer Dave Hartman rented a house outside of town and started brainstorming what would become Southern Culture's shtick.
"We figured it had to be presentation as much as music," Miller says. "It actually worked out really well, you know? We got a really strong identity almost too strong."
Indeed, SCOTS quickly developed a grassroots following for its funny songs, goofy rustic attire and penchant for throwing Southern delicacies such as banana pudding or fried chicken into the audience like redneck Juggalos.
After three indie albums, the band signed to Geffen for 1996's Dirt Track Date, scoring a minor hit with the Eastern-tinged surfabilly tune, "Camel Walk." The album sold a quarter of a million copies on a label that never truly believed in the band. Yeah, the band was more interesting visually than your average indie rock combo but it made only one video during the two-album Geffen ride, for "Camel Walk," after it hit on radio.
"I really think part of the problem is we didn't take too much money to make a record, and we recouped really quickly. They just didn't have enough to lose to bet on us," Miller chuckles. "They just thought of us as a novelty band.
"I remember walking in to see the head of A&R, who was like this kind of Joni Mitchell wannabe of course, she probably signed Joni Mitchell and she had a really nice stereo," Miller continues. "I was really into stereo at the time, and I was like, 'Wow, you have a Conrad-Johnson. I have a Conrad-Johnson with some Bang & Olufsens.' She goes, 'You're kidding me. Do you know what that stuff is? I thought you guys were just playing stuff on Sears & Roebuck stereos.' I go, 'Wow. She believed the schtick. We're fooling everybody.'"
Pulling the wool over many sets of eyes and ears is precisely the problem, and the reason behind Countrypolitan Favorites. It features a number of enjoyable juxtapositions, such as the Who's "Happy Jack" as a boisterous bluegrass tune, or "Tobacco Road" as a garage-psych rave-up. Elsewhere the group unearths humorous near-novelty gems such as Merle Kilgore's "Wolverton Mountain" and James Moore's "Te Ni Nee Ni Nu."
"We felt like it was the easiest way to break out of a lot of preconceptions people may have about us," Miller says. "We listen to a lot of different stuff and we have a lot of different influences. Even though we identify regionally, definitely, with a lot of the content of our songs, the musical stuff comes from all over the place, and very few people get it."
Certainly, Miller's playing has always drawn from a cross-section of sources, including rockabilly, surf, country-western and garage. He cites Link Wray and Hasil Adkins as big influences, noting that "a lot of the music I really liked [as a teen] was very primitive and raw."
Miller says he understands the culture's recent fascination with white trash characters from My Name is Earl to Larry the Cable Guy, citing their almost punk aesthetic as "outsiders who make their own rules."
"I think people are fascinated with that, especially the more homogenized and the more cookie-cutter all the classes become," he says.
But the sudden spike in attention may signal that it's time to move beyond stereotypes, which Miller and company didn't see as a problem 20 years ago when they just wanted to quit their day jobs.
"I don't mind it's given us a career, really," Miller says. "But I think there is more to us than that, and this record was a good way to kind of break out of that a little bit. We'll start to work on our next album of originals this summer, and hopefully this will be a real nice springboard to something ... Like hooking a Radio Shack mic to the other side of a banjo and running it through a Big Muff [distortion box]. Just like more strange and getting almost experimental with it, but still a song."
Thursday, May 3, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward, Detroit; 313-833-9700. Shotgun Wedding supports.Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org