SOUTHERN CULTURE ON THE SKIDS
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“People who aren’t used to being around us might get taken aback by how we treat each other,” said Rick Miller, 58, guitarist and vocalist for Chapel Hill’s tenured rockabilly band, Southern Culture on the Skids. “I think that’s how we’ve made it this far is by being honest with one another. We’ve gone through a few rough patches.”
The rough patches Miller is referring to are similar to what any band that has been playing together for more than 30 years experiences. Alongside Mary Huff and Dave Hartman, vocalist/bassist and percussionist, respectively, Miller has continued to pack the van and hit the road in order to play music. Since 1983, the year the band was founded, the group has released more than 15 albums, had songs on soundtracks for blockbuster films and video games, and has played nearly all the late-night talk show spots. The ups and downs of the industry, though, are not something that Miller is shy to talk about.
“(Back then) it was great! They’d cut us a check for licensing, and since I didn’t sign a publishing contract with Geffen Records, we’d get a publishing check and the band would get a check and the writer would get a check,” he said, referring to a song called “White Trash” that appeared on the Beavis and Butthead Do America soundtrack. The song originally appeared on the band’s fifth studio album, Dirt Track Date, which also happened to be their first release with Geffen Records, a major label at the time.
“That was the watershed for us. We were an indie band then, working the circuits, each record sold more”¦when we got signed to a major, nothing really happened right away,” he said.
Around one year after the release of the album, a radio disc jockey in Florida played a song called “Camel Walk,” a song that Miller described as a b-side that was originally recorded to fill space on Dirt Track Date. The song resonated with audiences, and suddenly Southern Culture on the Skids went from playing in front of 200 people to venues holding over 2,000.
Said Miller, “We figured if we could hold onto 15-20 percent of that audience, we would be able to make it as a band.”
That was around 1995, and just short of 20 years later, the band is still holding onto that audience, and gaining traction with new fans thanks to re-releases of albums.
The latest release, Dig This: Ditch Diggin’ Volume 2, is a reworked version of the group’s 1994 release, Ditch Diggin.
SCOTS received an offer to have “Too Much Pork For Just One Fork,” a track featured on the original Ditch Diggin’ album, appear on a cable cooking television show. Due to some complications with the rights to the original recording from the 1994 album, Miller, Huff and Hartman decided to record an updated version of the song so that they owned the licensing and publishing rights to it.
“Basically, we did it for the money in the beginning, and then we did it more as a labor of love,” he said. Dig This: Ditch Diggin Volume 2 was released in 2013.
For bands like SCOTS, who have been around since the heyday when record sales allowed for lucrative careers for musicians, the new era of digital downloads and streaming music is not an easy transition. Miller remembers the days of royalties (the band still receives checks from the Geffen imprint, which is now owned by Universal Music Group), and he also remembers the precise moment when those checks stopped coming.
“I think that it really hit home for us when we did Mojo Box. After the Geffen thing we did Liquored Up and Lacquered Down – actually we were signed to EMusic, the hard product was on TVT Records – we were mostly doing hard product then,” he said. EMusic is a subscription-based service that allows members to download a certain amount of tracks per month for personal use. Artists receive royalty checks based on downloads.
“The next one was Mojo Box for YepRock Records”¦ that did well, the numbers were going down, but it was selling.”
“All of the sudden, the next record, Countrypolitan Favorites, it just disappeared. All of the sudden there was no money. That’s when we started doing it ourselves out of necessity,” he said.
When the money was good, when royalty checks were lucrative, Miller invested in studio equipment. Looking down the road, he saw that being a touring act with 200 stops per year wouldn’t last forever and wanted to have something to fall back on. Even though that industry has dwindled – the fee for studio rentals has been nearly cut in half for hourly and day rates – SCOTS has been able to record, mix, master and release all of their albums since 2010 through Kudzu Ranch Records, which is Miller’s.
“I’m thinking we might start releasing some one-off singles and market them only to our fan base,” Miller said. This is by no means a new model, but certainly one that SCOTS can adapt itself to easily with the access it has to the studio.
“The people that play (our music), they see your website, your social media, so telling our fans we have a single and trying to sell it to our fans. We will still put out records, but not with those songs on them.”
For SCOTS to be where they are today is no easy feat. They were in a good place when they were in their “prime,” and they haven’t succumbed to the defeat of the new era.
“I think we held on,” Miller concluded.
“Obviously we are getting older and it’s harder and harder for us to tour. There are no health issues, but we will continue to tour because we are a good live band.” !