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The new Lard Have Mercy! exhibit at UNC celebrates 30 wild years of Southern Culture on the Skids



Interior decorators, take note: If you need to make any room less stuffy, just ask Southern Culture on the Skids to move in.

After three decades of making sleazy, greasy and trashy rock 'n' roll, Southern Culture are proven purveyors of plastic seat sweat, flingers of fried chicken and scatterers of banana pudding. For the next five months, their 30-year-old retrospective and first museum exhibition, Lard Have Mercy!, will commandeer the august confines of the Southern Folklife Collection in UNC's Wilson Library and turn it into something like a Dixieland trailer park.

The library's fourth floor, which houses the collection, is a maze of well-lit offices and archives, complete with research stations and conference rooms. But SCOTS have turned the walls and display cases into a redecorating frenzy. Flanking a rather severe portrait of Southern Historical Collection founder J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton, a vintage SCOTS poster that reads "Right on time like hair on a biscuit" hangs like a tease. But a revved up La-Z-Boy really loosens up the room: Rescued from the photo shoot for the band's 1997 album Plastic Seat Sweat, the chair—upholstered in glorious green Naugahyde—occupies its own corner. Yellow-crested orange flames flicker across the sparkling headrest, armrests and footrest alike. One red dice tops the footrest-release lever, like a skull sitting atop a hot-rod's stick shift handle.

There's plenty more white trash treasure tucked away in the cases: slavering zombies adorning vintage posters, grimy guitars, wigs, drumheads, records, videos, even an assortment of fan letter-memorabilia from a quarter century spent on the road. If your knees feel weak when you approach the guitars on display, the wooziness might not be from emotion.

"I don't clean 'em, man, especially the old Danelectros," offers SCOTS patriarch and frontman Rick Miller, laughing. He recently found an old Gretsch he hadn't played in nearly a decade, covered in calcified banana pudding. Miller assumes that the guitar took a hit from a fan, and that he simply didn't notice. He put it in its case, where it sat for eight years. He was more amused than disgusted when he found the damage.

"I just leave 'em the way they are," he says. "I don't leave 'em out, 'cause if my dog gets close to 'em, she'll lick 'em clean."

Last year, Kent Thompson, a staff photographer at the N.C. Museum of History, donated a cache of pictures he'd taken of local rock bands since the '80s. They were his hobby. So much of that collection covered SCOTS' career that Southern Folklife Collection curator Steven Weiss decided to focus on the band. Thompson connected Weiss to Miller, who invited Weiss to tour The Kudzu Ranch, his studio in Mebane. He discovered a treasure trove of SCOTS paraphernalia and knew that the band deserved a retrospective, particularly after their 30th anniversary last year.

"It's hard not to look at the material and listen to the recordings and appreciate them on that level. It's just very funny stuff, as interesting visually as it is musically," he says. "It lends itself well to being exhibited because so much of it is really visual—maybe even graphically so."

The curator fits no one's picture of an academic: Clad in jeans and a sweater, the 45-year-old could pass for a student if not for the few flecks of gray in his hair. He seems as enthusiastic about the collection as a SCOTS zealot, and he appreciates the irony of a cultural institution honoring a band that has made a career from sending up the culture that institution preserves.

"That they're essentially spoofing Southern culture in a lighthearted kind of way, not in a rather mean spirited way, adds another dimension," says Weiss.

Although born in the small town of Henderson, about an hour north of Raleigh, Miller lived in Southern California in the '70s. Surf guitar legend Dick Dale played almost every night near where he lived. He admits that the motive for his own music had little to do with significant cultural revelations; he focused instead on the sound, a consistent and excitable blend of blues, country, punk, rockabilly and surf.

"Making culture statements—that's for people like Steve. That's his job," Miller says. "Ours is to entertain people. If something like that happens along the line, we would be the last people that would know that, as it should be. We were just trying to have a good time, and we still are."

As much as it is an exhibition of interesting memorabilia, Lard Have Mercy! offers a poignant look at the good time Southern Culture has had. Miller's biggest longtime influence is Link Wray, the late North Carolina guitarist who invented "fuzz tone" by poking a hole into an amplifier speaker with a pencil. Though they played a show together on Wray's birthday, Miller thought he'd never be able to meet his hero, because Wray's overprotective wife kept him sequestered downstairs in his dressing room until just before he was to go onstage. But Miller calculated that, perhaps if SCOTS played one of Wray's songs, he'd recognize it and ascend from hiding.

"I looked over and there's Link: black leather jacket, sunglasses, pumpin' his fist in the air, listening to our song, listening to his song, played by us," Miller says, newly excited by the memory. "We got done, and Link grabbed me by the shoulder. 'Rick, that was fantastic. Is that one of yours?'"

Miller told Wray it was one of his songs: "He stood up straight," Miller remembers, "and said, 'My God! That should have been a hit!'"

Whenever Southern Culture subsequently shared bills with Wray, they hung out and talked, even playing several songs together onstage. Miller told Wray he played Danelectro guitars because Wray played one, but he wanted to know why such a legend favored those cheap guitars. "Everybody was playing a Stratocaster or Jazzmaster or Gibson Les Paul, but back in those days, man, I'd bust 'em up," Wray told Miller, "so I'd only buy cheap ones, but they all had their own sound."

That principle has stuck with Miller, from the guitars to the banana pudding stuck to them. "The low-budget thing has always been part of what we do," he says. "I own some nice guitars and I play them occasionally, but it just doesn't seem right, you know? I like playing funky stuff."

So-called funky stuff remains critical to their appeal.

"They pull from a really broad swath of American music, focus on music that is perennial music," Weiss says. "We wanted to do something that would be fun and appealing to campus, the students and the community."

Miller admits that it's an honor for his idiosyncratic take on the South and rock to be given a showcase at a major university. But he doesn't want it to seem like a farewell or a pause for too much reflection. SCOTS continues to be a very active band, and sharing this wild-eyed vision of the South remains Miller's primary objective.

"We'll have a couple of generations at one of our shows, a father and a son, or even a grandfather, a father and a son, and they'll say, 'Rick, your music is the only music that we can all listen to together in the car,'" says Miller. "You know, that's nice."

This article appeared in print with the headline "How to preserve banana pudding"

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