The Picketts - Grungetown grass grows grangy on the Picketts side of the fence
The Northwest has always been awash in a sea of music. Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, The Wailers, The Sonics, Jimi Hendrix, Queensryche, Nirvana, Pearl Jam. These musicians have been ahead of their times and underappreciated on their home turf -- until they got so famous that everyone clamored to tell their personal story of "having met Kurt Cobain at a party." Ultimately, they rose to the top of their respective heaps. OK, you've got to start somewhere. So quit yer "Oh, woe is me! We just can't get no respect!" whining. Try being a garage band like the Wailers in the midst of the '60s British invasion. Or a country band like the Picketts in the midst of the '90s Seattle grunge feeding frenzy. "Seattle isn't a very warm environment for what we do," says Christy McWilson, singer, songwriter and Girl-Scout-guitar-strummer for the Picketts. "When we first started [in 1990] we were doing great. Until the big disaster -- when Garth Brooks and Nirvana came out at the same time and suddenly the music camps were polarized. You were either a Garth fan or you liked Nirvana." McWilson jokingly refers to herself as the long-lost stepsister of Carlene Carter. If you see them live, you'd concur. You might also spy a Blasters bandana tucked in her back pocket or wrapped round her hand. It's not so much to wipe the sweat from her brow as it is a reminder of that strange land between country and rock. Let's borrow a line from The Blasters and call this awkward place American music -- not young country, thank you very much. The Picketts have toured California alternating between opening for Highway 101 and the Beat Farmers. Talk about the north and south poles of American music. They've also opened for Junior Brown, Billy Joe Shaver, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Los Lobos -- and then there was that once-in-a-lifetime coup, opening for Johnny Cash. After hearing their set, The Man In Black heaped upon them the highest praise, and not a bit off-handed, by commenting how refreshing it was to see a young band not hide behind a "stage filled with flying pigs and exploding bales of hay. And how about that stand-up drummer, at the front of the stage, singing? Haven't seen one of them since the '50s." Which of course brings us to the inimitable Mr. Leroy Sleep (aka Blackie Rad from his rockabilly days). To stand up behind your single bass, snare and cymbal takes more than a smidgen of nerve and ego not often found in the timekeeper of a band. Sleep also shares lead vocals and songwriting for the Picketts, completing the sturdy foundation. McWilson and Sleep's voices at once mix and fight like Johnny and June, Emmylou and Gram. McWilson and Sleep began the Picketts out of the ashes of several rockabilly/country-rock bands they were in. Gerald Collier, singer for the Seattle rock band Best Kissers in the World, had heard McWilson sing. "I had sung with the Raw Critters and he was blown away," McWilson recalls. "He came up to me and said, 'Let's sing.' And then he called me up and insisted, 'Let's sing.' I said, 'I know a drummer.' Steve (Marcus, bassist for the Power Mowers and the original bassist for the Picketts) said, 'I know a guitar player.' And we started playing right from there." What began, and continued, to be a revolving door of band members solidified by the beginning of 1992, with lead guitarist John Olufs, rhythm guitarist Jim Sangster (who also often plays lead guitar for rockabilly legend Roy Loney & the Longshots and remains the bassist for the Young Fresh Fellows), and bassist Walt Singleman (who, along with Olufs, still occasionally performs with Seattle stalwarts Red Dress). Of their previous affiliations, McWilson says, "It's really important to know that we all played in a lot of rock bands. But John and I, our hearts are in country. And I think it shows." Sangster adds, "We played in street bands, blues bands, a lot of bands. You know, I think the more you get into a different kind of music, you find out where what you like comes from. I like rockabilly. We all loved Rockpile, and the more you listen, these guys are all over the Everly Brothers, and when you hear the stuff where it came from, well, that's exciting." Country was the unifying factor. "That was the one music that all of us agreed on," McWilson says. Mixing country with rock was a tradition that goes at least as far back as Elvis. "And there was that crossover thing in the '70s with Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. For me, that was the main roots from which we sprang," McWilson adds. If you have been fortunate enough to have seen the Picketts, you likely live in the Northwest or their adopted second home of Austin, Texas. Except for a smattering of shows in California, they haven't gotten out much. You might have stumbled upon their various vinyl/CD output (a 7-inch cover of the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" on Popllama; Paper Doll, a full-length CD on Popllama; and "The Picketts Pick It", an instrumental 7-inch on Cruddy) at your local indie record store. But the pressing runs and marketing were limited for those releases. It was time to step up to the the next level. A 10-song tape attracted the attention of Rounder Records, which last month released the band's new 13-song disc, The Wicked Picketts. "Things really happened when they played the Jimmie Dale Gilmore party as part of the unofficial  SXSW doings," recalls Ed Beeson, the band's manager. "This was really the stamp of coolness for the band. They played three other shows during the conference, again unofficial, but after their Liberty Lunch show, Ken Irwin (of Rounder) came up to me and said, 'We'll follow up on this.' " And this was no idle threat -- not just an off-handed way of saying he wasn't interested. He was sold." Six months later came the actual commitment; then it was six weeks of contract negotiations. In January of '95 the CD master was sent to Rounder, which was followed by months of knob-twiddling and fine-tuning. It was a long wait, but McWilson says it was ultimately worth it for the degree of control the band was able to keep. "A lot of the alternative people, we stick to our guns," she explains. "It's like, the producer says, 'We'll take you on if you get rid of that drummer, if we use one of these songs.' I'm not into that. Rounder liked us the way we were. They trusted our instincts and we haven't lost creative control. .... Our personal run in with the powers that be illuminated why (country music) makes such an issue of control. Control by the producers and people who have the money [over] what song, who plays, how it's done, how much money is put into it and how big the push is." Sleep adds that in country music, "it's such an 'artist' thing, and the band comes next." Sangster ends, "And it's that rock background which has the band rather than the artist emphasis." When you put the results of all this effort, The Wicked Picketts, on the disc player, your ears are immediately pricked to the solid chuggin' bass and rat-a-tat drums of the opener, "Boat Song." McWilson's crystalline vocals cut through the fog. It's a loaded freight train heading for the crossing. The dual guitars sound a warning, but the train won't stop, so you'd better get off the tracks. What are mostly original tunes have the stamp of timeless country. McWilson sings "Can't Take it With You" as if she were Loretta Lynn fronting the Texas Playboys. "Just Because You Ain't Got" has Buck Owens' lyrical simplicity without the corn pone. And to throw you for a loop, they rendered it a slow burning twister. The instrumental "Sukiyaki" could have been included in any Ennio Moriconne movie soundtrack. The sour steel slide and echoey guitar set a quirky, haunting scene. The Picketts have even turned Yoko Ono's disco song "Walkin' on Thin Ice" into a plaintive country wail. Judging from the response to a mailing of advance CDs, The Wicked Picketts is a freight train on its way from Santa Fe to Chicago. "We're getting a real positive response from radio for this record," Beeson says. "A radio programmer from Atlanta, Georgia, called me up and said, 'Where've you guys been? When'll you come out this way? I'm putting this on my list of top records for the year.' " To keep up this momentum, the Picketts expect to do mini-tours of three to four weeks come January, hitting where and when the album is getting a hot response. McWilson says they'll be back in the studio in the spring, with a second Rounder release tentatively set for October '96. Most of the songs are ready to go and they're wrangling for Nick Lowe to produce. Problem is, he doesn't know he's being offered the job yet. So if you see him, let him know there's this really great band from Seattle. They're a little bit honky tonk, a little bit rock 'n' roll, a whole lotta country. Just don't call 'em young.