Music News & Reviews

Southern Culture skids into a UNC museum exhibit

This photo from Southern Culture on the Skids at the Local 506 in Chapel Hill during Sleazefest 1994 is in the Kent Thompson Collection at the Wilson Library in Chapel Hill.
This photo from Southern Culture on the Skids at the Local 506 in Chapel Hill during Sleazefest 1994 is in the Kent Thompson Collection at the Wilson Library in Chapel Hill. <capitals>Courtesy of Kent Thompson</capitals>

It’s not just a chair; it’s a throne: the flame-emblazoned La-Z-Boy recliner that appeared on the cover of “Plastic Seat Sweat,” Southern Culture on the Skids’ classic 1997 album. As befits a band known for evoking the trashier side of the trailer park, it’s an odd combination of souped-up retro-chic and funky antiquity.

It’s also a perfect centerpiece for “Lard Have Mercy! 30 Years of Southern Culture on the Skids,” an exhibit that pays tribute to the long-lived Chapel Hill band. “Lard Have Mercy” opens Friday and will be on display through August on the fourth floor of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library.

Go take a look, and the “Plastic Seat Sweat” easy chair will be the first thing to jump out at you. It’s an artifact with roots in Skids guitarist Rick Miller’s childhood in the 1970s, when the only stereo his family had was an eight-track tape player built into a recliner.

“It was very secret agent-like,” Miller recalled. “You had to press a button to make it come out, and I remember spending summer days on it listening to music – and having to just peel myself out of it afterward. Plastic seat sweat from sweating in a La-Z-Boy, you can’t live in the Southeast without knowing what that is.”

Miller wanted to convey that sensation on an album cover and settled on the image of a recliner painted up like a hot rod. So the band connected with Von “Lowbrow” Franco, a Los Angeles artist specializing in painting pinstripes on race cars.

Franco took an old recliner the artist’s grandmother was going to throw away and commissioned an upholsterer named “Downtown Willie” to pump it up with extra foam and cover it in green-sparkle vinyl. Then Franco painted flames on it by hand. The final touch was to top off the recliner’s handle with a dice-shaped stick shift handle.

“When they were all done,” Miller said, “it looked just amazing.”

After the recliner was shot for the album cover, Miller kept it in his living room and eventually his Kudzu Ranch recording studio in Mebane. But the chair was starting to get weathered from years of people sitting on it and picking at it.

Enter the Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Library. Curator Steve Weiss was putting together an exhibit about the Skids, primarily based on pictures taken by local photographer Kent Thompson. Weiss called to see if the band had any items to contribute, and Miller asked whether he wanted the album-cover La-Z-Boy.

“Are you kidding?” Weiss responded. “Yeah!”

So as not to cause more wear and tear, visitors won’t be allowed to sit on the “Plastic Seat Sweat” throne. Still, it’s a piece of local music history worth seeing.

“It’s such an icon unto itself,” said Weiss. “It says a lot, even though it’s an inanimate object. I think Rick was happy to see it go somewhere because it was taking up a lot of space.”

After the show’s run, most of the artifacts will join the Southern Folklife Collection’s permanent collection, including items such as a Barbie doll modeled on Skids bassist Mary Huff. “Lard Have Mercy” also has various promotional items from over the years, such as a “Mojo Box” (for the 2004 album of the same name) with items such as “Mary Huff’s Control Hairspray, guaranteed to keep you high, dry and satisfied.” And it displays fan art, including the first fan letter the band received and a barbed-wire-and-neon “Southern Culture on the Skids” sign.

“That came from a guy in Salt Lake City,” said Miller. “He made us one neon sign that broke when somebody tried to steal it. So he made another with barbed wire, ‘so if somebody tries to grab it and run, they’ll hurt themselves.’ ”

As to the notion of Southern Culture on the Skids being the subject of a museum collection, Miller takes that in stride.

“I never exactly thought of our music as ‘museum-quality,’ ” he said. “But I’ve always been a firm believer in folk music encompassing Americana, surf, garage, bluegrass – everything. It’s a level playing field. Having it all in academia is good for everybody. So it’s kinda weird, but great.”