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Grange rockers get wicked

By Joel Bernstein, January 1996

Once upon a time, people got tired of hearing Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd all day, so they created something called "alternative rock."

And then the alternative became so popular that people needed an alternative to the alternative.

Nowhere was this truer than in Seattle, which did more than any other city to make the "alternative" mainstream.

So it's only fitting that Seattle should be home to The Picketts, a band providing a refreshing alternative to not only mainstream rock, but also to mainstream country.

It's hard to find an easy description for The Picketts. Even vocalist Christy McWilson - not usually at a loss for words - is forced into a moment of silence when asked to do so. Finally she says that some people in Seattle call the band "Grange Rock."

This pithy description, created as simply a play on Seattle's more famous "Grunge Rock," is as apt as any.

Of course, there are disadvantages to being the alternative to everything.

The biggest is that it's difficult to get people to hear your music.

And it's particularly difficult for The Picketts, who are extremely limited in the amount of time they can spend touring. Last year they were able to do only two one-week tours, covering each coast. The markets they played saw increased sales for their excellent Rounder album "The Wicked Picketts," since the band is even better live than on disc, but they just didn't get to enough of them.

Originally from Sonoma County near San Francisco, McWilson was into country music growing up in an area where the music had a big crossover appeal.

"My first country revelation was Merle Haggard, and then Patsy Cline," McWilson said in an interview from her Seattle home. "The whole Gram and Emmylou thing really hit me hard. I'm really attracted to female vocalists in both country and rock."

She met her future husband, Scott McCaughey, while they both attended San Francisco State. They moved to Seattle in 1980, and McCaughey, who she said has an "encyclopedic knowledge" of music, wrote for a local music magazine and wound up in a band called The Young Fresh Fellows. The Picketts' rhythm guitarist Jim Sangster is also a member the Fellows.

McWilson was dismayed by Seattle's attitude towards country music. "It was much more uncool up here," she said. "In California, there's more tolerance." She was in a '60's retro band called The Dynette Set. "We did '80's-ized versions of songs like 'My Boyfriend's Back,'" she said. "When we unearthed these songs, it was real novel."

And "The Wicked Picketts" owes as much to the bouncy innocence of that early '60's pop as it does to country music.

One night a rockabilly band opened for them which featured a standup drummer. McWilson was intrigued by this, but when she "found out he could sing, I was floored."

"I wanted to get into rockabilly" and so she teamed up with the drummer, a Seattle native named "Blackie" Sleep, to form The Power Moves. This band was a cross between Little Richard and Wanda Jackson. It was a little too raucous for McWilson, ("It doesn't come naturally to me to be a flat-out rocker") and eventually it evolved into the countrier Picketts. "Blackie came from the rockabilly/R&B side, and has trouble singing country," McWilson said.

As a result, The Picketts became "my vocal thing more than his," she said.

Sleep's standup drumming remains as a visually striking and highly controversial element of The Picketts.

The first thing labels interested in the band usually say is that it has to go. "I'm amazed at the attitude (in the industry) about standup drummers," McWilson said. "There's a perceived threat that people will think we're strictly rockabilly. I've heard it before and since; there's a drive to put Blackie's drums in back."

Another objection is that McWilson, as both lead vocalist and an attractive female, ought to be center stage. But anyone who's seen the way she bounces around the stage during a show would realize that it hardly matters where she starts out.

The Picketts first recorded for Seattle's tiny PopLlama label. Their first record, a single, featured a thoroughly reworked, countrified version of The Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go."

Aside from being a good way to get noticed, the song also gave an early hint of what would become a Picketts specialty - drastically rearranged, almost unrecognizable, versions of rock songs. (A concert favorite, yet to be recorded, is The Who's "Baba O'Reilly"). Ironically, McWilson said she recently heard The Clash version on the radio and took a while to realize what it was. "I've been doing it our way for so long I have trouble recognizing the original," she said.

How does the band find these covers? "We're all really into music and have broad tastes," she said. "You have to like the song. Sometimes out of nowhere, it just pops into your head. (Lead guitarist) John (Olufs) said we could do 'Sukiyaki' as 'Rawhide.'"

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