I was a squeaky-voiced fourteen year old the first time I saw Chapel Hill-based Southern Culture on the Skids in the spring of 1997. It was at the dawn of my interest in live music, and was the first concert I ever attended at the legendary Magnolia Street Pub. I even wrote a story about it for my eighth grade English class, if you can believe it. So it feels right to report on the first SCOTS concert in Spartanburg since Magnolia’s closed in 2004.
They’re an amazing outfit, as much for the specific musical niche they’ve carved out for themselves as for their astounding technical virtuosity. If you’re not familiar with their music, imagine super-charged surf rock mixed with hints of Hank Williams-era country. It’s catchy as hell, even before the lyrics start working on you. I love, love, love that sound, and it’s what got me hooked on their music in the first place, but they are clever songwriters and I wouldn’t have kept coming back if it weren’t for their lyrics.
They seem to speak with a kind of trailer park joie de vivre. And they’re masters at identifying cultural icons of the blue collar South, and framing them in a song: day-old banana pudding, greenback flies, fried chicken, demolition derby, and so on. It’s hilarious and really, really smart, because they manage to embrace the good things about that culture while poking a little fun at it. It’s a welcome relief. I don’t have much of a blue collar background, but I can relate to certain parts of that identity, so I find it very frustrating to encounter the widespread depictions of southern working class culture as backwards and trashy. There is plenty of work to be done here, for sure, and I work hard at retooling that identity every day. But as long as folks exaggerate and distort the problems, it remains hard to be a proud Southerner, and being a proud Southerner is essential for salvaging a positive local identity and moving it forward. SCOTS helps me to identify and embrace the worthwhile parts of that heritage, and for that reason, their lyrics are deeply satisfying to me.
SCOTS had never before performed at the Showroom, so it was a real treat to see them on what feels like my home stage. A big crowd of devoted fans turned out for them, many of whom had never seen the venue. There were also plenty of familiar faces, so it was a real comfort to know I had this band in common with a lot of my local friends. My biggest pleasure, however, was that my wife, Sara, was entirely unfamiliar with the band, so this concert would be her first experience with their music and stage act.
It’s important to understand that act. Too often, bands seem to forget that they’re standing in front of a crowd with as many eyes as ears, so they all but ignore their stage presence. SCOTS treats their crowds to a performance, though. You can see the playfulness in lead guitarist Rick Miller’s eyes as he works his lyrics, and his body language is interactive as he singles out dancers and diehard fans. Similarly playful, bassist Mary Huff remains meticulously dolled up and flirty during the show with her crimson bouffant and go-go boots. But eye-catching though their hair and outfits may be, Rick’s skillful guitar work is a show all its own. That man can jam. And that’s where Sara first took real note. She whipped her head around to me several times during the show to tell me how wowed she was by his solos, and how he could work a catchy lick up to a jamming frenzy. Kudos to you, surf rock master Rick.
Where this act truly delves into the memorable, though, is through a few SCOTS concert standards. In keeping with their rockabilly roots, they have a few dances they’ve invented, and they encourage their audiences to participate. The Camel Walk and the Ditch Digger pepper up the experience in preparation for their song, Eight Piece Box, a raunchy tribute to greasy breasts and thighs. By this time in the show, they had a stage full of worked up dancers (including, to her surprise, my dear wife), and as the song began they passed out a few boxes of fried chicken. It started timidly enough, as the dancers had fun nibbling their deep-fried props, but progressed rapidly to an all-out food fight. Fried chicken shrapnel spread far and wide in a matter of seconds, and all that oil seemed to grease up the dancers for a whole new round of shaking and dipping. Maybe something about breaching the “don’t play with your food” taboo loosened folks up, but one way or another, that crowd seemed unstoppable for the rest of the night. The band plucked and grooved their way through the end of the show, including the memorable finale, “Viva del Santo!”
It was a hoot. I’m thrilled to have once again seen this amazing band perform in Spartanburg, and I hope to see them again here soon. Sara’s been abuzz ever since, and she relishes the chance to periodically drop me a soulful “ba-na-na pudd-in!” If you missed it this time, be sure to see them when they come back through!