It's not quite turning chicken shit into chicken salad, but there's little doubt that when Rick Miller started the surf-country-blues hybrid band Southern Culture on the Skids in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the eighties he didn't expect to have his band's imagery collected, cataloged, and put on display by the University of North Carolina. Nevertheless, Lard Have Mercy!, a 30 year retrospective of the band and its lighthearted white trash aesthetic opened over the weekend at UNC's Wilson Library under the banner of the university's Southern Folklife Collection.
On display are gig posters and memorabilia, as well as a cache of photographs by Kent Thompson that generated the idea for the exhibit when he donated them to the collection. There's also a collection of Miller's guitars, some caked in banana pudding. "I don't clean 'em, man, especially the old Danelectros," he told writer Grant Britt in a feature for INDYWeek:
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." (via)
One highlight of the exhibition is the flame pinstriped naugahyde recliner featured on the cover of 1997's Plastic Seat Sweat, a perfect example of the band's artistic sensibilities. The rockabilly revival of the late eighties and early nineties saw hundreds of bands appropriating the hot rod and halter top aesthetic, along with bowling shirts and schlocky twelve bar blues, but few bands came across as so earnest in their love and celebration of the lifestyles of the not-so-rich and infamous as Southern Culture on the Skids.
Their songs about lovelorn nights in cheap hotels, Little Debbie snack cakes, and eight piece boxes of fried chicken are a sticky, fatty mix of nostalgia and parody, a Saturday morning cartoon version of a world many of us lived in briefly or wished we could have. And even though it can be a little tacky, there's no doubt that Southern Culture on the Skids' music and mythology reflect the evolving folklife of the South. It's great that UNC is acknowledging that North Carolina's musical heritage didn't get frozen in the sepia-toned age of bluegrass.
Lard Have Mercy! is on display at the Wilson Library on UNC's campus through August 29th. Learn more at the Southern Folklife website.