Volumes have been written about Nirvana’s Nevermind spearheading a fuzzed-out, screaming mess of a sea change that reintroduced punk into the national conversation. Predictably, major labels began poaching bands from the underground, frantic to replicate the Seattle trio’s seemingly out-of-nowhere success. In the goldrush to find the next Nirvana, labels like DGC, a Geffen subsidiary, Reprise, and Atlantic offered big money to punk and noise acts like Jesus Lizard and The Boredoms that heretofore would never have gotten a lunch date.
But while Nevermind signaled a renewed interest in punk, it also served to open doors for bands with equally skewed, if not as visceral, tendencies. With acts like Beck, Daniel Johnston, Ween, and Stereolab inking deals with major labels, suddenly, anything seemed possible. To the everyday consumer of Top 40 radio, these were transmissions from another world.
Which brings us to Southern Culture On The Skids, one of the unlikeliest candidates for big-league attention. The handiwork of singer/guitarist Rick Miller, the trio has been a Chapel Hill institution since 1983, perfecting a genre-fuck comprising surf, rockabilly, lounge, old-school country, and R&B. The band’s name clarifies Miller’s intentions: “(We wanted) some kind of name that would get us some attention, ya know? We were listening to the UNC radio (station) there and they were playing an R.E.M. song. I like R.E.M. fine, but at the end of it, the DJ says, ‘Ya that was REM, the sound of the new South.’ I looked at my roommate and we said, ‘Gawd, if that’s the sound of the new South I preferred it when it was on the skids.’ That’s how we got the name.”
By 1994, SCOTS– now in its classic line-up, including bassist Mary Huff and drummer Dave Hartman– had released a handful of beloved records, including Too Much Pork For Just One Fork, For Lovers Only, and Ditch Diggin’. And by 1995, DGC signed the group, releasing the Santo Swings EP, followed by the full-length Dirt Track Date, a much-needed antithesis to grunge’s by-then faux-angst and introspection.
Some of the SCOTS faithful felt slighted and jilted– as we-were-here-first fans often do when their band finds a larger audience– since Dirt Track Date featured a more polished production and re-recordings of four previously released songs, “Camel Walk”, “Firefly”, “Voodoo Cadillac”, and “Eight Piece Box”. But while earlier records like For Lovers Only and Ditch Diggin’ are essential purchases, each on fire with lo-fi hot-rod tendencies, DTD gives Miller and company the opportunity to realize the “swamp rock” sound they’d envisioned a decade earlier. Consider the evolution of lead track “Voodoo Cadillac”, a one-dimensional trudge in its earlier incarnation, but here, a reverb-laden mover, complete with CCR-approved droning arpeggios. When Miller insists, “Let’s ride,” we know we’re going places.
“Camel Walk” also takes on a fresh life, sounding more bizarre and vital than before. Critics described Kurt Cobain as the voice of my generation, but as a kid growing up in Juliette, Georgia, spending my allowance at Bowdoin’s Grocery, I identified more with Miller’s obsession over the convenience store’s snack aisle:
Baby, Would you eat that there snack cracker
In your special outfit for me, please?
Yo ye pharoahs, let us walk
Through this barren desert, in search of truth
And some pointy boots, and maybe a few snack crackers.
Baby, you make me wanna walk like a camel.
Who’s in charge here?
Where’s my Captain’s Wafers?
Don’t go around hungry now, the way you eat that Oatmeal Pie,
Makes me just wanna die, baby!
You make me wanna walk like a camel.
Say, you don’t think there’s any way I can get that quarter
From underneath your pointy boot, do ya?
All I want is just one more oatmeal pie.
Little Debbie, Little Debbie!
Special outfits? Pointy boots? I didn’t know what a camel walk was! Didn’t The B-52’s mention it in “Dance This Mess Around”? But it sounded… Dirty. My libido, indeed.
Elsewhere, DTD showcases the various sides of SCOTS– the swamp funk of “Soul City”, the Link Wray-worship of “Skullbucket”, the backwoods kitsch of “White Trash” and “Fried Chicken And Gasoline”, the exotica of “Make Mayan A Hawaiian”, and the landlocked surf of “Galley Slave”. And while a sense of humor courses through the record, it never overshadows the group’s musicianship. The dynamic “Greenback Fly” and “Firefly” are peppered with percussive dust-ups that outshine similar bands with trucker hat sensibilities. Moreover, the laughs never succumb to condescension or assimilation. At the core is a reverence for the band’s musical influences and its North Carolina roots.
SCOTS made one more album for DGC, Plastic Seat Sweat, before making their way back to the indies, where they’ve been releasing albums ever since, each one worth your time and dollars. But they made good with Dirt Track Date, giving mainstream audiences a joyous, irreverent counterpoint to grunge’s ennui. Whereas some groups dwelled on angst and disillusionment, SCOTS, in songs like “Whole Lotta Things”, banked on tomorrow:
“Well, I had a good daydream
I woke and it’s gone
But the taste in my mouth seems to linger on
Rubbin’ my eyes, lookin’ down at my shoes
Said, “Man, there’s a lotta things I’d like to do
Whole lotta things that I’d like to do
A lot in this world that I’d like to do.”