Grange rockers get wicked

By Joel Bernstein, January 1996

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"'Baba O'Reillly' and 'Walking on Thin Ice' were things we fooled around with early," she said. "It was really hard to get across to people that Yoko could be done like Johnny Cash."

"I don't like to do covers of serious country songs," McWilson said. "I like to interpret them. There have been a few songs we had to give up on because it didn't translate."

Their album "Paper Doll" was released on PopLlama in 1992. It wasn't quite as dramatic as their first single (or their later album). The two well-known covers, a lovely version of Tom Waits' "Heart Of Saturday Night" and the rockabilly standard "Let's Talk About Us," were quite recognizable. But the original songs showed a great deal of talent, and overall they displayed a country sound very similar to that on the Rounder album - retro, yet not too retro.

Most of the original songs were credited simply to Sleep/McWilson. "We were doing a Lennon-McCartney" said McWilson, meaning that anything either of them wrote would be credited to both.

But when the band went on tour, McWilson had an unpleasant revelation. "I found I was being talked down to by people," she said. "People felt since I was female I had to really be just a puppet. I felt I had to differentiate myself."

So on the next album, both McWilson and Sleep had a couple of solo credits, as well as some co-writing credits.

Several years later, with their new album already recorded, The Picketts went to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas looking for a label. This annual forum, known as SXSW, has become the leading showcase for non-mainstream acts, particularly in roots music, to find labels, bookings, or critical attention. PopLlama was too small. The band wanted a label with better distribution.

The showcase went well. "A number of labels were interested in us, but Rounder was the most artistically cool," McWilson said. "They seemed to like us for who we were."

So "The Wicked Picketts" came out last year and drew a lot of excellent press , from both rock and country circles.

But the band was not able to promote it the way they would have liked. McCaughey got a big break when he was asked to join R.E.M.'s tour as an extra guitarist. Although the money helped out a lot - neither The Young Fresh Fellows nor The Picketts have made any of their members rich - it left McWilson to take care of their six-year old daughter.

It was not the easiest year for McWilson. "Scott had the time of his life," she said. "He was at four-star hotels and hanging with famous people. I was at home saddled with the responsibilities of trying to balance everything."

McWilson sings a song on the album that seems to sum up this experience, the tongue-in-cheek "If You Love Me (you wouldn't be having such a good time)."

In the meantime, plans proceed for the recording of their third album, still on Rounder. It's expected to be produced by Los Lobos member Steve Berlin. Once the omnipresent force in roots music, Berlin has been less active lately, but should help to give the band a higher profile. Although songs have not yet been finalized, McWilson indicated her difficult 1995 has made her writing less lyrically upbeat.

The band is something of a family for McWilson. "We're all really close," she said. "They're all my best friends. We spend a lot of energy in the band. But my first priority is my daughter. The Picketts have had to take a backseat."

The Young Fresh Fellows are due to go out on the road with successful Seattle band The Presidents of The United States, whom they helped to land a contract, but McWilson said, "I have first dibs if anything comes up for The Picketts to go out."