As one that celebrates most holidays (at least the ones that Hallmark didn’t create to sell more cards), Cinco de Mayo was one that I had always heard about, but never took it upon myself to delve into the mystique. Year in and year out, on the week of May 5, grocery stores would feature their Mexican beer and themed foods in their sale ads, reminding you to stock up on cases of Tecate and Old El Paso taco kits. As we know, it’s an observation/celebration to commemorate Mexico’s victory over France at the Battle of Peubla in 1862. It’s completely understandable why it’s celebrated south of the border, as well as here in the United States by Mexican-Americans whose ancestors carried on with tradition. What I wasn’t sure about was why North Americans, with no Spanish lineage whatsoever would line up at Mexican restaurants to wash down bowel-rupturing burrito platters with lime-accented Coronas. To quench my Dos Equis thirst for knowledge, I asked a lady from Mexico (a teacher, in fact) about the significance of the day in question, and if she would be partaking. She laughed and told me the historical background, but it really wasn’t THAT big of a deal back home. In fact, it’s a much more overcommercialized affair here in the States, she said, and it was just another reason for Americans to get drunk. Even with my query answered, I still couldn’t help but get caught up in such a festive mood, especially since Cinco de Mayo was on a Friday this year, and Southern Culture On the Skids would be in the area…
The music of Southern Culture On the Skids (aka SCOTS) has resonated with me for years. Their wonderful amalgamation of garage, surf, rockabilly, and honky tonk has been a consistent recipe for feel good music and they’ve been a welcome addition to the numerous podcasts that I used to host (“Whiskey ‘N’ Waterbeds”, “Hayride To Hell”, “Cheap Beer & BBQ Radio”, “40 Oz. Nonsense”). So, it was a no-brainer to plan a short road trip from Roanoke to the Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount (VA), nestled in Franklin County, the “Moonshine Capital Of the World” (how fitting is that?). It was also a mind-blowing bonus when local photographer (and my former co-host on “Whiskey ‘N’ Waterbeds”) Brian Muncy asked me to help with a photo shoot of 2/3 of SCOTS, Mary Huff and Dave Hartman. Brian’s project as of late has been a visual documentation of musicians from the Roanoke Valley, which includes Mary and Dave, who grew up here and still has familial ties to the area. The fact that they would participate in Brian’s labor of love reinforces the fact they’re not only down to earth, but very supportive on non-mainstream projects. Being in their presence was awe-inspiring, yet laid back due to the absence of ego and negativity, making one feeling as if they’re in the company of old friends. Sure, I’ve been to numerous meet-and-greets after their shows, but I’ve never been lounging around in a dressing room environment, listening to some of Rick Miller’s grin-inducing stories from the road. Just short of pulling a Wayne’s World “We’re not worthy!” moment, the shoot was over, and Rick, Mary, and Dave headed for the stage. Brian and I packed up the gear, grabbed a beer, and headed into rock ‘n’ roll Valhalla…
Without a doubt, the Harvester Performance Center is a Class-A venue that’s hosted an eclectic bevy of talented artists such as Todd Rundgren, the Smithereens, Jonathan Richman, Buddy Guy, Merle Haggard, the Psychedelic Furs, and the Drive-By Truckers (amongst many others). Situated in a former farm supply dealership in downtown Rocky Mount, the Harvester can seat over 400 people (700 if standing room only) in its main auditorium. Their state of the art audio equipment ensures that every show will sound pristine, giving the audience not just a live performance, but an exceptional experience, accompanied by spot-on lighting effects. The reputation of this concert hall guarantees top notch entertainment every month, with numerous touring bands fitting a stop in on their way to larger destinations. The basement also books shows, albeit of the smaller, more intimate type with a seating capacity of 200 (300 plus for standing). Friday’s show marks the second time SCOTS has played the Harvester, the first being in December 2014. Although I was unable to attend that show, it’s a fairly safe bet that no banana pudding was flung from the stage.
Entering the classy environs of the Harvester as SCOTS immediately broke out into surf jam mode, it was easily decided that standing was better to sway the hips, as opposed to sitting. With a crowd composed of serious fans, heads bobbed, asses shook, and a sing-along chorus accompanied many a tune that was played from the SCOTS discography. Rick demonstrated his ability to be an engaging storyteller, interjecting humor into a whimsical weave of musical euphoria. With performances that are always killer (and no weak filler), it came as no surprise that they were firing on all cylinders. The set list included so many of their most beloved album tracks that were delivered sublimely: “Dirt Track Date”, “White Trash”, “Banana Puddin'”, “’69 El Camino”, “Pig Pickin'”, “King Of the Mountain”, and “Liquored Up and Lacquered Down” (just to name a few). Mixing it up, they included instro-surf numbers such as “Skullbucket” and “Rumors Of Surf”, plus selections from their latest release “The Electric Pinecones”. I spied a box of fried chicken on the stage, surely reserved for the crowd-participation number “8 Piece Box”. The vocalizations of Rick and Mary came in crystal clear (as well as their guitar playing), and Dave’s drumming was precise (as usual), making them sound very “needle on the record”. I haven’t gotten to see SCOTS as many times as I’ve liked, but the Harvester is definitely one of the best venues I’ve caught them in. If you’ve never taken the chance to see them perform, rectify that as soon as possible, as this is one band that will never phone it in. And unlike those pampered “rock stars”, SCOTS shows their appreciation for their fans with their meet-and-greets after the show, signing CDs, posing for pics, and if you’re lucky, maybe kisses on the cheek from Miss Mary herself.
The aforementioned latest album “The Electric Pinecones” (released on September 16, 2016 on Kudzu Records) is another fine collection of master songwriting and musicianship. All of the boxes are checked as SCOTS gives us more garage, psych, alt-country, and swamp pop in their signature Southern-flavored melting pot of rock ‘n’ roll that only they can pull off. The opener “Freak Flag” is an addicting earworm of power pop and garage-psych, surely destined to be a live show favorite for years to come. “Dirt Road” has a wonderfully eerie feel as Mary sings this Southern Gothic tale with a CCR feel, making one checking the song credits to see if John Fogerty was involved. “Baby I Like You” is a catchy country-rocker that brings to mind their cover of “No Longer A Sweetheart Of Mine” on their excellent “Countrypolitan Favorites” covers-only LP, while “I Ain’t Gonna Hang Around” is another upbeat, feel good tune that’s just the remedy to cure those blues. Another more serious track, “Grey Skies”, brings us back into “Dirt Road” territory, which is not a bad thing. In fact, I would be interested to see a darker SCOTS album comprised of material inspired by the folk tales of the South. “Waiting On You” is a psych-inflected gem that wouldn’t be out of place on another “Children Of Nuggets” boxed set. “Midnight Caller” is sung in Mary’s trademark sassy style, “Swamp Fox” is a thumping rockabilly number (accented by Dave’s drumming), and things slow down to front porch chill mode with “Downward Mobility”. The musical journey is rounded out by a trio of countryfied compositions, the first being the cornpone “Rice and Beans” that’ll put some spring in your step. “Given To Me” recalls the duets Gram Parsons recorded with Emmylou Harris with its whiskey-drenched sadness, and “Slowly Losing My Mind” surely belongs on honky tonk and Waffle House jukeboxes all across this land. These twelve songs are a testament that Southern Culture On the Skids keeps getting better with time, and it’s a party that we don’t want to ever end. “The Electric Pinecones” is a certified classic, and like Cinco de Mayo, it’s an infectious celebration to lift the spirits.
“Swamp Fox-The Original”:
Purchase “The Electric Pinecones” (as well as other SCOTS releases) on their website.
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You can also keep up with SCOTS news on Twitter.
Special thanks to Rick Miller, Mary Huff, and Dave Hartman for their hospitality.
A special thank you also goes out to Brian Muncy.
Thanks to Ralph Scialpi for his front row photo.