Old Faithful trumps everything. Unlike interview times set by a publicist or sound check time at a show, Yellowstone National Park’s famous geyser always stays on schedule.
It’s hard to fault Southern Culture on the Skids’ founder, guitarist and singer Rick Miller for not answering his phone when Charleston Scene came calling. After all, he had geysers to admire.
“The cool thing about Yellowstone is that you can drive around in a car and pull off and walk to these hot springs and geysers,” Miller said on the phone last week before the band played a gig just outside the park in Montana.
“They’re sulfuric, so they smell pretty bad. When the wind blows in your direction, the kids are all like, ‘Ugh! Ugh! It’s toilet water! We got sprayed with toilet water!’ ”
After nearly 30 years of touring its unique blend of rockabilly, country and surf music around the world, Southern Culture on the Skids, commonly known as SCOTS, knows how to make use of its free time during the day before a gig.
And Miller’s songwriting reflects his keen cultural observations during his travels, as well as his Southern upbringing.
Miller was born and raised in the country near Chapel Hill, N.C., and his father owned a mobile home factory. His family moved to the outskirts of San Diego for a few years, where he developed an affinity for dirt bike racing, before moving back to North Carolina, where he still lives today.
“My take on the South is that it’s the most unique place in the country for a number of reasons, including the poverty as well as the plantations,” Miller said. “The religion and the moonshine, it’s all of those things. There’s an isolation that the South had for quite a long time. It’s becoming homogenized to a degree, but the traditions, the customs, the food, the music; it’s all unique and still very regional.”
In conversation, Miller’s commentary comes off as astute and well-considered. His songs, however, require a deeper listen to unravel.
At face value, albums such as 1995’s “Dirt Track Date” seem like surface-level celebrations of the South’s raunchiest honky-tonks and redneck stereotypes. The disc features songs including “Fried Chicken and Gasoline” and “8 Piece Box,” performed in the straightforward manner of a rockabilly trio, which includes bassist Mary Huff and drummer Dave Hartman. The album’s title track closes the collection, ending with five minutes of audio from a dirt track motorcycle race.
“A lot of people will put it on while they’re washing the dishes or something, and if it’s the first time they’ve played it, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, people are racing down our street!’ ” jokes Miller.
Interspersed between the driving, catchy rock tunes that mix lyrics about chicken and sex are instrumentals full of reverb-heavy guitar and Dick Dale-esque licks.
SCOTS’ classic surf sound, like the motorcycle races, is a product of Miller’s years in California.
“In the late ’70s, I used to go see Dick Dale at the Belly Up Tavern. He was still the king of the surf guitar but not yet the father of heavy metal, and there weren’t a lot of bands doing that kind of stuff,” recalls Miller. “I think if you enjoy instrumental music, there’s no way that you can’t dig surf music.”
Like the South in general, SCOTS’ music is a gumbo, melding country with surf guitar and lyrics that are miles away from anything on FM radio.
One of the most memorable songs on 2010’s “The Kudzu Ranch” is “My Neighbor Burns Trash,” where Miller sings about the “toxic haze” his house was often subjected to by his next door neighbor’s trash fires.
His neighbor was a Christian and she tried to convert him, explains Miller.
“When I said I didn’t want to join her church, she got very upset. Then I noticed that she started burning her trash on the hill where the prevailing winds blow it right at my house.”
Whereas many songwriters rely on relationships and lost love for inspiration, Miller finds his subjects along the back roads of Dixie. He fondly recalls a gig in Oxford, Miss., that ended with a night out at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in Holly Springs, next door to blues legend R.L. Burnside’s house.
“It was literally like stepping back into the ’50s, both the positive and negative,” Miller said. “That’s where I got the song ‘I Learned to Dance in Mississippi’ (from 2000’s ‘Liquored Up and Lacquered Down’) because I’d never seen such incredible dancing in my life. It was so much fun that it’s hard to describe it.”
Another song of Miller’s, “The Man That Wrestles the Bear,” tells the story of Rabbit Rose, one of the workers at his father’s mobile home factory who wrestled a bear each year at the county fair.
“I worked there every summer, so I got to know all these characters out there,” Miller recounts. “There was a county fair that would come around with rides that even a 5-year-old now would look at and say, ‘That’s not safe,’ and they had a muzzled bear that you could win $25 if you could stay in the ring with him for two minutes.
“This guy Rabbit would wrestle the bear every year. The humane society would shut it down in a second today.”
Even though it was declawed and muzzled, the bear would win every year.
“But the next day, (Rabbit) would come into work and say, ‘Next year I got that bear’s number.’ I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s perseverance. That’s optimism. This is giving that guy a reason to exist.’ ”
Miller questions the ways that Southern culture collides with popular culture, citing the example of Paris Hilton or Brad Pitt wearing a trucker cap, the same type of hat his father’s factory workers wore. He sees a subtle Southern iconography reaching all the way to Hollywood and New York.
“The South is fascinating; all the oral histories of African religion mixed with Christianity, and the gumbo of culture that’s everything from the Gulf Coast to Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to the Lowcountry of South Carolina. It’s all of that stuff,” Miller said. “I think that’s why Southern writers are so great, because the South is full of real characters.”
The subjects of SCOTS’ most recent release, however, are hardly real.
“Zombified” is an extended reissue of an EP originally released only in Australia in 1998. With its consistent zombie theme — songs have names such as “Bloodsucker,” “Idol With the Glowin’ Eyes” and “Eyeball You Later” — the rerelease coincided with Halloween last year.
Miller explains that SCOTS’ longtime popularity in Australia may be due to similarities between the audiences there and in the American South.
“Both the Aussies and the Spaniards remind me of playing in the Southeast, because people are really friendly and funny and drink an incredible amount of alcohol,” Miller said. “The attitude is, ‘This is who I am. Take it or leave it.’ ”
Whether he’s playing to a familiar crowd in North Carolina or overseas to foreigners, Miller’s usage of the redneck side of Southern themes is anything but lip service. The band legitimately enjoys motorsports, even sponsoring a different dirt-track motorbike rider each year. This year it’s Kayl Kolkman.
That same attitude carries over to its openness about gigs. In Montana on the day we spoke, SCOTS was preparing to headline a bar event called Farmageddon. In Charleston, it has played places as diverse as Halligans, Home Team BBQ and the Music Farm.
“But we’re excited to get into The Pour House on a Saturday night,” Miller said. “You just can’t have a bad show in that room. It’s so intimate.”
Eye to eye with the crowd, it’s difficult to bring any pretension to the stage. And when you’re singing about banana pudding, zombies and trash fires, there’s no reason to take yourself too seriously.
After all, it’s just everyday life in the South. Minus the zombies.