The countrypolitan sound came out of Nashville in the ‘50s as a (mighty successful) bid to give country music some crossover appeal by stripping it of its rough edges and hillbilly stitches in favor of slick sound and pop production. Led by Chet Atkins, the countrypolitan sound enjoyed decades of dominance, until, arguably, country music abandoned any pretense of being country music at all. Name a major name in country music from the ‘50s to the ‘80s, and they probably owed their success to the countrypolitan sound (although there were successful challengers such as the Bakersfield Sound, championed by artists like Buck Owens).
So it might seem a little strange at first to hear Southern Culture on the Skids, one of rock’s swampiest, roadhouse-busting acts, devoting an entire record to the countrypolitan sound. But the SCOTS sound has always been a blend of all kinds of things, from Creedence’s swamp boogie to Dick Dale’s surf guitar to the Louvin Brothers’ classic country.
So it’s helpful that SCOTS finally gives us a covers album to help us with at least one aspect of their sound, since describing SCOTS always feels like a roots-flavored game of six degrees of separation. I mean, it’s not like trying to describe some kind of prog-rock synthesis, but SCOTS fans can use any help they can get.
That said, listeners should be prepared to hear a slicker SCOTS than they’re used to. Anyone familiar with their earlier work knows how chicken grease and banana pudding drip from every song the band has ever written, but here, they turn the frydaddy down a bit on their way to giving some country classics a rock treatment.
It works really well for cuts like Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” and Joe South’s “Rose Garden” (made into a hit by Lynn Anderson), both of which boast vocals from Mary Huff. One of the unexpected surprises to be found on Countrypolitan Favorites is the large number of Huff vocals. She’s always been good for a song or two on SCOTS records and onstage, but she’s all over the place on Favorites, either taking the reins for lead vocals or sharing duets with guitarist/usual singer Rick Miller. It’s a good choice. Even on a countrypolitan treatment, Miller’s vocals still show a good bit of twang—something countrypolitan historically avoided like the plague. Miller and Huff play off each other especially well on Onie Wheeler’s tale of neighborhood swinging, “Let’s Invite Them Over”, a song that fits right into the SCOTS tradition. “Wolverton Mountain” shines too, right down to the yodeling background vocals courtesy of Huff.
In typical SCOTS fashion, though, Countrypolitan Favorites doesn’t just trot out the usual suspects; the “countrypolitan” tag cuts both ways. In the same way that several countrypolitan classics get a rock treatment, there are also a few rock tunes getting their first countrypolitan treatment.
The Kinks’ “Muswell Hillbilly” gets a twangy treatment loaded with an organ tone that’s about three short feet away from the Mysterians’ “96 Tears”. The Who’s “Happy Jack”, of all things, finds its spunky guitar line translated to hillbilly banjo and hoedown bounce (and it works surprisingly well). T. Rex’s “Life’s a Gas” gets guitar-fuzzed out of its mind, and CCR gets a pair of nods (“Tombstone Shadow” and their Golliwogs-era “Fight Fire”).
Countrypolitan Favorites is obviously a labor of love on the part of Southern Culture on the Skids. They have fun with the material, but despite whatever facelift they give a song, they retain the qualities that made each song memorable in the first place. In spots, the slick production leaves you wondering what a few songs would sound like with some true SCOTS guitar growl, but Countrypolitan Favorites is a smartly put-together, and fun, record. What’s more, it shows yet again that Southern Culture on the Skids are more than a novelty band; they’re talented, they know exactly what they’re doing, and they know exactly where they’re from.