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.”