The Skids do it themselves

Staff writerDecember 3, 2010 

  • Who: Southern Culture on the Skids, Forty-Fives, Pinche Gringo

    When: 9:30 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Cat's Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro

    Cost: $12 advance, $14 day of show

    Details: catscradle.com or 967-9053

    Who: Southern Culture on the Skids, Mad Tea Party

    When: 9 p.m. Dec. 18

    Where: Berkeley Cafe, 217 W. Martin St., Raleigh.

    Cost: $15 advance, $18 day of show

    Details: berkeleycafe.net or 821-0777

A quarter-century on, Rick Miller still remembers it as clearly as yesterday: the day that playing guitar with his Chapel Hill band, Southern Culture on the Skids, became his primary occupation.

"The greatest moment of my career is still the day I quit my day job," Miller says. "I was running copies at Universal Printing, doing course packs, and we'd booked a four-week tour. My boss told me, 'You can't be gone that long.' 'Then I guess I quit,' I said. 'I'll check with you when we get back.' And I never did. We pretty much lived in the van for the next 15 years."

That they did, logging 250 dates a year on the road and becoming one of America's greatest underground bar bands. And they're still going strong, with another solid new album out - "The Kudzu Ranch" ( scots.com), named in honor of Miller's recording studio - and more than enough live work to keep busy, including two upcoming Triangle shows.

Success beckoned

Equal parts trailer-park chic and state-of-the-art roots rock, the Skids are a veritable institution around these parts. And there have been times in their 27-year existence when they brushed up against widespread mainstream popularity, most notably the mid-1990s.

That was when "Camel Walk" from the Skids' 1995 album "Dirt Track Date" was seemingly everywhere. The band was, too, although they weren't thrilled with the death-march pace of touring. It paid off in the form of major sales ("Dirt Track Date" has sold more than 300,000 copies to date), but at a price.

"That was the most success we've ever had, and I was never closer to quitting," Miller says. "After 'Dirt Track Date' came out, we toured all over America and Europe for a solid year. Then after we came home, some guy started playing 'Camel Walk' on a modern-rock station somewhere and other stations picked it up. The radio people at Geffen said, 'You've gotta get back in the van, there's an opportunity here!' So we did. Twelve weeks in the dead of summer.

"We were on the road at least 300 days that year and I was just sick of everything," he adds. "The songs on 'Dirt Track Date,' doing radio spots, cheesy promo stuff. It's not like I'd soured on music, just the business of it all. I wanted to take a break and write some new songs, but we had to get out there and flog our 'hit.'"

First-rate musicians

Fortunately, the Skids survived their hit and lived to record again, which doesn't always happen. "The Kudzu Ranch" features the group's customary redneck aesthetic on prominent display with "My Neighbor Burns Trash" (about a Bible-thumping neighbor with a penchant for setting flame to toxic waste), "Pig Pickin'" and "Bone Dry Dirt" - plus cool covers of Nirvana's "Come As You Are" (as a surf instrumental) and Neil Young's "Are You Ready for the Country."

For all the attention the Skids get for their colloquial antics, their musicianship is first-rate. Miller is an amazingly versatile kudzu-surf guitarist who can play pretty much anything. Drummer Dave Hartman keeps a rock-solid backbeat, and singer/bassist Mary Huff is one of the most underrated players out there. The music website musicradar.com recently anointed her one of "30 amazing unsung bassists."

Even though they've cut back on touring in recent years because of family responsibilities, the Skids still work as hard as any band around. "The Kudzu Ranch" is the most do-it-yourself album project they've ever done.

"This is our first album on this new business model for us, where we're doing everything ourselves," Miller says. "It's using too much of the wrong side of the brain, if you ask me, and it's a different kind of cash flow. When you're on your own, you're on your own. There's a lot to it and I have more respect for the business guys now. Doesn't mean I like 'em, but I respect what they do a lot more."

david.menconi@ newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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