Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Picketts, from The Rocket, August 1995

Inspired by a photo that Miro Jugum posted of The Picketts doing an in-store at the long-gone Tower Records store on Mercer Street in Seattle -- in which the band mambers were holding copies of The Rocket with them on the cover -- I've dug out that cover story from my personal archives. Here it is, below.

A side note: Grant Alden and I were starting up No Depression at the very same time. Since I was writing about The Picketts for The Rocket, we needed another writer to do a piece on the band we were planning to run in the first issue of No Depression. That writer ended up being our good friend Mary Schuh. You can find it here:

The Picketts in No Depression #1, Fall 1995


From The Rocket, August 1995
By Peter Blackstock
            It would be easy to call the Picketts the best country band in Seattle, but first we must ponder the question: Are the Picketts a country band?
            Guitarist John Olufs cranks out riffs with the kind of raw twang that recalls the heyday of legends such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. But if you tune into country radio stations these days, Owens and Haggard are nowhere to be found, cast off to pasture in favor of your Garths and your Trishas and your Billy Rays and your John Michaels.
            Singer Christy McWilson has one of the most classically beautiful country voices since Loretta Lynn. But what's she doing over at stage right? Don't these guys know that you're supposed to put the cute girl singer in the middle and rename the band Christy & the Cowboy Nation?
            Instead, center stage belongs to Leroy "Blackie" Sleep -- a drummer, who plays standing up and shares vocal duties with McWilson. Since when have drums been a spotlight instrument in country music?
            OK, let's check these guys' credentials. Rhythm guitarist Jim Sangster boasts bass-playing duties in the Young Fresh Fellows, Seattle's most celebrated garage band. Olufs and bassist Walter Singleman were in Red Dress, who were -- well, it's hard to say what they were, but they sure as heck weren't no C&W hat act.
            Yet the Picketts ARE the best country band in Seattle.
            Meet the new country. It's about the same as the old country, really -- except that the old country has long since been passed over in favor of a starmaking machinery that stresses individuals over bands, smooth sounds over solid songs, and image over talent. It's no wonder country has become a commercial equal with rock and rap on the pop-music playing field in recent years: In its effort to reach the masses, Nashville polished off the edge that defined country music in the first place.
            So it's really not all that surprising to see the seeds of country taking root in the underground. As alternative-rock bands proliferate to the point of implosion and young punkers begin to wonder if there's really anything new under the sun after all, a traditional form such as country becomes more and more appealing. Especially when the genre is crying out to be reshaped and reinvented by fresh, creative blood.
            But doing this stuff well takes more than merely an attitude and a guitar. It helps if you have a certain amount of respect, rather than merely disdain, for the music that has come before you. The best alternative-country bands have taken the time and effort to seek out the great forgotten works of decades gone by, and have simply set about "to go through that music and take the parts and put them together in a different way," Olufs suggests.
            "There's so much back there to be inspired by," Sangster adds.  "And the more your learn about that music, the more interesting things you bring to the kind of music that we've all played before."
            As much as the Picketts have absorbed what has preceded them, however, they're not interested in being a retro band. "You have to make it happen right now," Olufs says. "It's really about having a feel for what you're doing, not with knowing so much the history of things."
            Sangster agrees. "You could know everything about every record put out and what you do could still be really crappy," he said. "And there's definitely a lot of music that's like that -- it's overthought, it's overeducated and it doesn't have any verve."
            For McWilson, who spent much of the '80s singing with the girl-group cover band the Dynette Set, the ability to use a traditional foundation as a springboard for personal creativity has been a gradual learning process. "I started off really emulating other things, but now I'm moving into my own experience," she says. "I feel like I'm pruning it or shaping it to something that's more relevant to me. I've gone from copying it to using it more as a form of self-expression."
            A good example is a song she recently wrote that was inspired by an old semi-novelty country hit called "The Girl on the Billboard." Both songs use an unusual device -- verses with lines that run on about three times as long as you expect them to -- but McWilson's lyrics have nothing to do with the rather sexist slant of the original. "It's kind of an answer, in a way," she says. "It's based on that song, but it's a reinterpretation; it's like my female response to it."
            It's also one of the best songs she's ever written, part of a healthy new crop of Picketts tunes that are ripe to be recorded for the band's next album. At the moment, however, the group finds itself in the somewhat awkward position of celebrating the release of an album that has basically been finished for almost two years but is just now seeing the light of day.
            The Wicked Picketts, the follow-up to the band's 1992 Paper Doll on local label Popllama, comes out this month on Rounder Records and gives the Picketts their first real shot at becoming nationally known. Until now, they've had to settle for regional recognition and a healthy pocket of fans in Austin, Texas, where the band has played several times.
            Long an established haven for country bands that don't quite fit into the Nashville mainstream, Austin not surprisingly has welcomed the Picketts with open arms. "The last couple times we were there, I've felt like that's  where we live," says Sleep.  "We go down there and people recognize us on the street and in the store, and they write stuff in the paper about us. We'd be riding in a cab, and the guy would recognize us. I was just blown out by that."
            In fact, the first time the band went to Austin, to play at the South by Southwest music conference in March 1992, rhythm guitarist Kels Koch liked the town so much he moved there. That marked the last in a long list of lineup changes that had hindered the band's momentum in their early years. No shortage of talented and accomplished local players have had stints with the Picketts, including the late Jim Silva, Gerald Collier (Best Kissers in the World), Larry Barrett, Brian Kenney (Lazy Susan), Steve Marcus and Jeff "The Dog" Leslie. Sangster, who had been playing with the band occasionally, took a full-time role after Koch's departure, and the lineup has remained the same since then.
            In addition to their trips to Texas, the band also has toured the West Coast a couple of times, but their upcoming plans to tour behind the new record will mark their first opportunity to take their music to rest of the nation. As fate would have it, however, those plans are basically on hold for a couple more months, as McWilson has been playing the single-parent role for most of this year while her husband, Young Fresh Fellows leader Scott McCaughey, has been on tour with R.E.M. as a backing musician.
            If timing hasn't exactly been on their side with touring prospects and album releases, it does seem to be playing a positive role in terms of musical climates and trends. With acts such as the Jayhawks, Wilco and the Bottle Rockets gradually broadening the audience for roots-influenced bands, the time seems ripe for the Picketts to bring their music to the rest of the country.
            Which reminds McWilson of an amusing anecdote from the band's earlier days. "Jim said something to me at a show where I was really depressed, and he put his hand on my shoulder, and -- I've never forgot this -- he said, 'Don't worry, Christy -- by the time people like the kind of music we like, we should be really good at it!"
            That time is now.

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