After nearly four decades on tour, Chapel Hill rock and acoustic band found themselves in NC making a new record.
by David Menconi
Through nearly four decades of existence, Chapel Hill’s Southern Culture on the Skids have been road warriors, keeping a relentless touring regimen. It has periodically been a family affair, too. When frontman/guitarist/svengali Rick Miller’s son was born 15 years ago, they just put a car seat in the van and took him along. The kid saw pretty much the entire country by the time he was 3 years old, one raucous barroom crowd at a time.
But even S.C.O.T.S. were no match for the pandemic. That’s what it took to get them off the road last year. Undeterred, they documented the novel experience of not being on the road with their new album, At Home With Southern Culture on the Skids, released in March. As befits the surroundings, it’s a decidedly more down-home version of their usual surf-guitar rockabilly madness.
“When everything shut down last year, we had to decide what to do with all this time on our hands,” Miller says. “Try to do live-streaming, or move all the studio gear over to the house and make a fun album in the living room?” They opted, indeed, to make a record, and it got them through the pandemic. “It’s a little more laid-back than usual — small amps, some acoustic guitars, not so loud because my son kept telling us to turn it down while he was doing computer school,” says Miller. “We used his drum kit, and it was fun singing vocals in my own living room. Comfort food for the ears, especially when I was listening to mixes in the La-Z-Boy recliner.”
While it might be a touch more restrained than usual, At Home is another solid collection of all the things that make S.C.O.T.S. great: cool covers, hot guitar licks, and exuberant paeans to the trashier side of the trailer park. That’s how it’s always been with S.C.O.T.S., whose annual roots-rock extravaganza “Sleazefest” used to be the summertime event of the season in mid-1990s Chapel Hill. “We’ve always been a DIY thing, never fit into the Chapel Hill scene or followed trends,” says Miller. “We’ve done most everything the way we wanted to since day one.”
Even though S.C.O.T.S. didn’t fit that era’s prevailing alternative-rock ethos, they have been a popular band in the region. They even had one song show up in the 1996 Ben Stiller comedy Flirting With Disaster, and another in a long-running Helzberg Diamonds commercial (which featured their 2004 song Mojo Box).
Through it all, S.C.O.T.S. has maintained an impressive consistency, which extends to their lineup. The core trio of Miller, singer/bassist Mary Huff, and drummer Dave Hartman has been together for 34 of their 38 years. Huff was all of 19 years old when she gave up her cello scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University, bummed a ride to Chapel Hill, and signed on as the beehived bass player and sometime lead singer in 1987.
“I was raring to go and wanted to play in a rock and roll band with a record, jump in the van, tour,” says Huff. “I just had my mind set on doing this thing for as long as I could and as far as it would take me. It’s still taking me places and I’m cool with that.”
One of the songs that Huff sings on At Home is a cover of the English supergroup Traffic’s 1967 trip-rock classic Dear Mr. Fantasy – rendered with banjo in a haze of what Miller calls “hillbilly garage weirdness.” But it has genuine pathos in Huff’s vocals, which she sang through tears shortly after learning about a friend’s death. Maybe we’ll get to hear that one onstage before too much longer. If the pandemic lifts enough to permit in-person shows this fall, S.C.O.T.S. has a few Triangle shows on the books. Beyond that, an improbable anniversary looms: 2023 will mark an even 40 years in show business. “The best thing about my career was when I quit my day job,” says Miller. “Not a song I wrote or a place we played, just the day I no longer had to work at a ‘real’ job.”
But they probably won’t make much of a fuss over it.
“I’ve just never gotten caught up too much in the milestones, which I think has helped keep us going,” says Miller. “You can’t get too hung up on birthdays or anniversaries. A lot of times the greatest thrill is to just do it for another day: another day to be a musician, write another song, or be married, be a father.”