Christy McWilson - A Pickett's charge
Last winter, Christy McWilson found herself at a crossroads. The country-rock band she fronted for ten years, the Picketts, had ground nearly to a halt. But she was still writing, and had recorded early versions of a new batch of songs with her husband, Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5, R.E.M.), and other Seattle cronies including Peter Buck. She got a copy to Dave Alvin, whose work in the Blasters and beyond McWilson had long admired. Alvin was ready to commit to the project and wanted her to come to L.A. so he could produce her record.
But no record label was even remotely interested in the project. Travel and production costs would force her to dip into her daughter's future college money. McWilson recalls this time of decision: "I wasn't about to sell the family farm. I was with a friend of mine in a used bookstore explaining my dilemma and telling her that I didn't want to flip a coin because I knew in my heart that I really wanted to make this record.
"Then I pulled a copy of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh off the shelf, and tucked into it was this fortune cookie fortune that said, 'You have a big decision to make. Follow what you want to do.' So I just went 'Whoa' and showed it to Scott and everybody. We decided on the strength of that that I was definitely going to make the CD. It just seemed so portentous. I mean, I can't go against something like that!"
Dave Alvin comes at these issues a bit more decisively. "I have an attitude about making records which is: Make 'em," he says. "I sometimes get into arguments with my friends or people I'm in bands with about record labels, and what is going to happen to me if I make this record, am I going to get screwed financially, am I going to get tour support, am I going to get this, am I going to get that? But for me, it really boils down to just make the damn record. Then worry about all that jazz."
All of which worked out in McWilson's case. HighTone Records, for whom Alvin has made many records, released The Lucky One on June 20 and is reimbursing McWilson for her investment.
And what a fine record it is. The 12 songs on The Lucky One represent a giant step forward for McWilson. The Picketts were a top-flight live act and made three good records. But McWilson's solo effort is a career album: a bold and diverse effort held together by some of the finest vocals you will hear. She and Alvin recruited an all-star musical cast from their immediate circles: Peter Buck, Bob Glaub, Greg Leisz, Skip Edwards (Dwight Yoakam's keyboardist), Rhett Miller (Old 97's), Rick Shea (from Alvin's Guilty Men) and Mike Mills. That's not even the complete list, but the namedropping merely detracts from the real story here, McWilson's powerful songs.
"She sent me a truckload of songs, a bunch of 'em," says Alvin. "I ended up being attracted to the ones that sounded less Picketts-esque. They are a really good band and are really good at what they do. If we were making a Picketts record, some of the others would be perfect. But for her record, I heard her going stylistically into some places that are a little different."
The arrangements vary from Tex-Mex ("Today Is Yesterday's Tomorrow"), recorded, not coincidentally, just a week after Doug Sahm's death, to a waltz ("Fly Away"), to a noisy, slow, blistering number ("Eloda"), to country ("Wishin'", the title track) to rollicking barroom rock ("Cryin' Out Loud", "Weight Of The World").
One of the best moments is "Someday". McWilson recalls that Alvin told her, "'I'm sick to death of straight shuffles.' So Dave took 'Someday' more into this '60s era. Peter and I both loved that and added this real Beatles-esque thing at the end."
Like many of the songs on The Lucky One, "Someday", despite its catchy melody, has strikingly sober lyrics:
Sometimes I don't know why I keep on trying at all
I'm tired of smiling wide when deep inside
I'm feeling that there's not a whole lot further left to fall.
"Right off the bat I think of 'Oliver's Army' by Elvis Costello," McWilson says, explaining this incongruity in her own music. "It is a really upbeat wonderful song, but if you listen to it, it's not upbeat at all. And I like that about it.
"But I don't want to be a sad sack. I get really bored listening to other people reveling in their depressions or whatever. For me, music takes me out of all that. I feel the joy of music. I think that the joy of music is a really important thing to work toward. I know that sounds corny. But music is a cathartic thing for me."
"A lot of people write off roots music as being emotionally monophonic," Alvin says. "You can either have the blues or you are drunk in a honky-tonk. But Christy has so much contrast. A lot of the songs are real sing-alongable. That song 'Someday' is like the Byrds go to Liverpool. But it has very sad lyrics with this AM radio 1965 thing happening on there. I really like that, when you can play one thing off the other."
McWilson gives Buck a large part of the credit for bringing out the melodies in the songs and helping arrangements take shape. "Peter was sort of a co-producer, but he would never cop to that," says McWilson. "He was really involved in the project from start to finish. He was so committed to it that when Dave wanted to produce, Peter told me he would clear time in his schedule and fly to L.A. at his own expense to play on the record."
Many of the songs explore the difficult emotional issues McWilson confronts trying to raise a daughter and lead a band while her husband has a separate music career. Alvin refers to McWilson as "the roots-rock Sylvia Plath."
The most jarring number on the record is "Eloda", which McWilson says is her favorite song on the CD. "It's named for my grandmother's older sister, who raised the younger half of this hillbilly family in West Virginia. Eloda raised her younger siblings and then was married off at an early age and then immediately had 10 kids. She lived in this little house with no electricity, no running water. They had newspapers on the walls. She died really early at about 50 or 51. I think she was just exhausted.
"I think somewhere in your family there was an Eloda, a strong woman who just bore children and raised children continually until she died. And there is no acknowledgment in that. She became this symbol to me. I wanted that song to be intense."
How many children did you bear and did he think twice
Acknowledging the labor and the care and the sacrifice
Rising in the night to the hungry cry
A million mothers' song in the passing sigh.
"I didn't even know this until my grandmother's funeral, but they were kind of like the Carter family," McWilson continues. "Eloda played fiddle and loved to sing. She and my grandmother were into music. But Eloda gave everything up because she wanted to raise children. How can you do anything more, you know? You sacrifice everything. I think this is a very common thing for a lot of women. I'm not sure that raising children is valued. I don't want to get up on a high horse about it, but anything you want to do on top of raising children is just really hard."
For many listeners, "Eloda" will be less about its bitter lyric than Alvin's searing guitar lead and Buck's garage-rock effects. And any sense of desperation in the album's lyrics is masked by the hum-in-the-shower quality of most of the songs, as well as McWilson's warm, supple voice. Nowhere are her vocals more affecting than on the lone cover tune, "'Til I Die", a relatively obscure Beach Boys song. Like much of the record, "'Til I Die" has a certain emotional resignation to it that can be taken for acceptance or defeat, depending on your perspective: "Until I die, these things will be."
Describing McWilson's voice, Alvin says, "She may get pissed off about me saying this, but she has a quality in her voice that reminds me of very early Linda Ronstadt around the era of the Stone Poneys, not like the '70s and '80s stuff. Christy can just kill a ballad, and I wanted to find a song to reflect that.
"So she told me that there was this Beach Boys ballad she always wanted to do, and of course Peter knew it right away, and was like 'Oh my god, I love that song!' Mark Linett, who engineered the record, has worked with Brian Wilson for years and had done the Love And Mercy record and the current live record. So, of course, he was really into it. Mark has access to everything of the Beach Boys at his studio and he had this version of ''Til I Die' with just the bass and the vibes.
"We sat and listened to that and came up with the idea not to do it like the Beach Boys but more in the context of the rest of this record. So on that track we used two pedal steel guitars [Leisz and Shea] and a layer of acoustic guitar [Buck] to keep it warm, and she cut the vocal live. When she sang it, we were all just like, 'Wow!' She knocked it out of the ballpark."