Billy Rat's golden age

With a new album and new lease on life, Truckadelic's wildman guitarist keeps redneck-rocking at 51

The cover photo of Truckadelic's new CD depicts the musicians dangerously over-lubricated on Pabst Blue Ribbon, waving pistols wildly in the air. In the center of the scene stands guitarist Billy "Rat" Ratliff, dressed in little besides purple underwear and a pair of wooden water skis. Poised at the edge of a dirt road, he clasps a rope fastened to the back of a revving pickup truck as he prepares for the ride of his life — most likely the final ride.

Looming above this Darwin Award waiting to happen is the album's title, the proverbial last thing a redneck says before he dies: Hey Y'all ... Watch This!

The cover is intended as a joke, of course, but Rat freely admits this wild tableau echoes his own life experience. "We used to do that for real," he says, "back when I was in high school. Just knock the keel off the skis first, and then get out on a dirt road and ski your ass off. Believe it or not, nobody ever actually got killed. I remember a lot of major road rash burns, and maybe some sprained joints, but I don't even remember any broken bones."

Of course, given the life he's led, Rat could be forgiven for forgetting a thing or two. Having survived half a century of road rash — not to mention alcohol, tobacco and firearms — the diminutive guitarist marks his 51st birthday this Friday, the night of the new CD's release party.

"It's a little late in life, but I'm finally livin' my dream," he says, smiling as he relaxes in his Atlanta homestead, a modest red-brick ranch house he calls the Ponderosa. "I'm doin' what I love to do, and I've got a wonderful family. I'm as happy as I've ever been."

Picking idly on the strings of a G&L guitar, Rat sits surrounded by an impressive collection of NASCAR and monster movie memorabilia, as well as framed portraits of artists ranging from Carl Perkins to James Brown. A little brown dog named Freeway lounges at his feet.

But clearly the action in his busy home revolves around Willie, a cherubic blond toddler. He's the musician's first child, the result of a union with his second wife, Star Bar talent-booker Heather Ratliff. The couple celebrate their third anniversary this Thursday.

"Heather came along, and she and Willie saved my life," Rat observes. "As it says in one of my songs, I'm the guy that no one thought would ever live past 30. And now, at 50, I've got more reason than ever to live a long, long time."

The extended odyssey of Rat's life began in Warner Robins, Ga., where he was born the last of five Ratliff brothers. His oldest sibling was a drummer who played with Jimmy Dorsey, but it was another brother who took him to his first rock 'n' roll show: a live appearance by Jerry Lee Lewis, playing piano on the back of a flatbed truck at a local shopping center. "I was probably 7 or 8 years old," Rat recalls, "and he was wild and crazy."

Scarred for life, the littlest Ratliff subsequently spent his early teens hitchhiking the 10 miles up to Macon to attend soul revues by James Brown and Otis Redding at the Macon City Auditorium. "Those were predominantly black shows. White people always sat up the balcony but I was 13 and only about 2 feet tall, so I would go down on the floor. The black people there just loved that, a little bitty white dude rockin' out to James Brown. They'd put me on their shoulders and get me up front."

Upon receiving a Gibson electric guitar for his 12th birthday, Rat immediately formed a band with a pal. The duo made their first public appearance at a seventh-grade talent show, performing "Ghost Riders in the Sky." They lost the contest, but Rat continued playing through his teens, until school prevented him from pursuing the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

"When I went off to college in '68," he recalls, "I kinda got removed from the scene, as far as actively performing. There was a group of us who got together and played, but we always had jobs and never got to go off and pursue it."

Rat drifted to Atlanta, where he married his college sweetheart and set aside his music for a warehouse job. By 1979 he'd worked his way up to management, but gave it up to open an independent record store. With an old school buddy, he launched Chapter 3 Records in Sandy Springs (and later, Virginia-Highland), but the store soon fell victim to national chain competition.

Rat rebounded by co-founding the Tortilla's restaurant on Ponce de Leon in the early '80s, though he left that business before it achieved its current success. His next stop was the trade-show field. "It paid well and was only part-time," Rat says, "so I finally had time to mess around with playing my guitar."

By that time, Rat had grown apart from his first wife and the couple divorced in the early '90s. "I suddenly found myself single again," he recalls. "That's when I decided, 'Dammit, it's time for me to be a musician again.'"

The extended bacchanalia which followed echoes through "One More Bottle," a Rat composition featured on Hey Y'all. "Back during my free years, my single years — I won't call them my lost years," he says, "I had a lot of oats to sow and I guess I sowed most of them at the Star Bar. 'One More Bottle' comes from there, when you're hanging out and you've got no place else to go, there's always time for one more bottle."

What started turning Rat's life around for the better during the mid-'90s was meeting Scott Maddox. A former Georgian, Maddox had a country/rock band in Denmark which charted several songs, but he needed an American backing band to showcase for domestic labels. Freshly divorced and with little else to do, Rat agreed to dust off his guitar and help Maddox out.

"I was immediately sucked back in," he remembers. "Then Scott took me over to Denmark for the Roskilde Festival, and I got to play in front of probably 25 to 30,000 people. So I immediately tried startin' to put something together as soon as I got back."

Rat had already met guitarist Kenny Thomas, who worked as a soundman at the Star Bar. After an abortive attempt at playing together in the band which later became Jane West and the Lone Star Impalas, Thomas and Rat resolved to work on another project. At about the same time drummer Joe Hamm, also a Star Bar soundman, made a similar deal with bassist John Dunn.

"So we all got together in a storage shed one night," remembers Rat, "and dragged Ted Weldon out to sing. It felt real good, and we made a commitment right there."

The result was Truckadelic, a five-piece "high-octane dieselbilly" ensemble that attracted an enthusiastic local following from the night of its first show. Part of the band's attraction was its "supergroup" status. Weldon had fronted the Diggers, a legendary local combo. Dunn was in Dragline, Thomas played for Loaded Dice and Hamm drummed with a bunch of other bands.

What kept fans coming back, however, was the unrestrained wildness of the live shows, modeled in part on the antics of Southern Culture on the Skids. When Truckadelic rushed out a live album as their initial release, the first pressing completely sold out in a matter of days. Although their high spirits remain undiminished half a decade later, the group's musicianship is more solid and mature. "Over the five years we've been together," says Rat, "I've become a lot more comfortable with my playing than when I first started."

This newfound comfort extends beyond the music, as reflected in several of the brighter songs he contributes to Hey Y'all. Most notably, "Lonely Lover's Walk" features the lyrics, "And you'll be my old lady/And we'll have a baby/And he'll grow up a good man/Much taller than I am."

"That was inspired by Heather, and was actually written before Willie was born," Rat recalls. "It came about in a period when I had settled into my domestic bliss and was feelin' good about life and myself. It's a big change from my early Truckadelic songs like 'You Stank Up My Life.'"

Another big change is that Rat no longer paints messages on his butt cheeks and drops his drawers during Truckadelic's shows. "Since I'm a father," he says, "I've got to maintain a little bit more adult image. Plus, we've got Shawn Thacker who replaced drummer Hamm in the band now, so we've finally got somebody with a nicer ass than mine."

Truckadelic performs at its CD release party, Fri., April 6 at the Star Bar. $8. Show time is 10:30 p.m. Call 404-681-9018.??