Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The first time I heard Christy McWilson play her song “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” with her band the Picketts, way back in the early-mid-’90s, I wondered whether it was a rockin’ Everly Brothers tune I’d never heard. Nope. It was hers.

She’s a classical country-rockabilly songwriter, full of witty, biting turns of phrase melded to well-baited musical hooks. I heard her play tonight in a little bar in Ballard after not having heard her live for a couple of years. One song I’d never heard grabbed me: “The Hair of the Dog Is a Man’s Best Friend.”

I began to understand how come she ain’t rich. A great country-rockabilly belter, somewhat like Wanda Jackson but with a richer voice, and one of the solidest songwriters around, the difference between Christy and most people is -- she means it. “Meaning it” doesn’t mean unironically. She means “the hair of the dog is a man’s best friend” bitterly -- she announced it was about her ex, whom she described as an alcoholic. Another line depicts him turning his back on her to kiss the bottle. “All of these songs are true stories,” she said at one point. The intensity of her performances makes you believe.

Her records, solo and with the Picketts, while full of terrific songs and fine performances, have never done her justice. Onstage she’s a fireplug, bouncing up and down playing her rhythm guitar during John Olufs’s hot leads (I was happy to see Olufs -- the Picketts’ lead guitarist, with her tonight). But it’s not just her stage presence that impresses -- her records have never done justice to her vocal presence. I’ve always wondered whether a touch of the indie-rock aesthetic of “muffle the vocals” on her records hasn’t been at cross-purposes with her classic rockabilly-country style.

“A Chip On My Shoulder and My Heart On My Sleeve” is the catch phrase of another song Christy sang tonight. As a self-portrait, it’s catchy, clever, and perhaps too-true-for-pop. Purveyors of the classic country style prefer a dash of detachment nowadays, and the rock world divides between the un-cleverly sincere and the cleverly ironic. Cleverness, clarity, catchiness, and intensity worked for John Lennon in the 1960s, but he was singing in the style of his day, and Christy is singing in a 50-year-old style with a spritz of amped-up punk. I love her stuff, and in the mid-’90s the Picketts could regularly pack a mid-size Seattle club with stomping, shouting fans; but -- there’s no money in being a great singer, or a great songwriter, or even both, unless you . . .

I don’t know what that “unless you” would be. Unless you fit into the stylistic divisions of the day? Or convince enough others to embrace your nonconformity, I suppose.

“We sang this song on Conan O’Brien,” she introduced one song, “and look where it got us.” Tuesday night, playing for free in a small bar that wasn’t full. “Not that there’s anything wrong with this!” she humorously backtracked, as she gestured to the room, most of whom knew her personally.

One line in the song she had sung on Conan brought tears to my eyes. Something about, “I say a prayer before I leap.” The band -- Olufs on lead, a fine electric bass player, and Picketts drummer Blackie Sleep, who also contributed his terrific duet vocals on a few songs -- had gotten quiet, it was just Christy and her guitar. The immensity, the confusion, the unknowability of life. Prayer or not -- we all gotta leap.

She’s working on a new record. I’m rooting for her.

* * *

I caught Christy’s set after my own band practice. Jillian, the newest member (sitting in to sing the parts of Jennifer, who is out of the country and won’t be back by our next gig), brought her guitar, and her rhythm playing changed the whole band. I’ll be playing stand-up bass on half the numbers while Robert, the regular bass player, plays mandolin. (The show is April 13 at the Rendezvous, downtown.) I love my own rhythm playing, but hearing its absence on half the set made me realize -- I love my own playing maybe too much. It’s great to hear the songs without my “touch” in the middle of them. I’ve always loved playing bass, so, practice was a blast. All five of us are singing on some of the songs, Mac’s got the bowed saw going on a few, Bob the drummer will be playing shakuhachi flute on one song and ukulele on another -- it should be a gas.

Playing music is really physical. Thumping the bass, hitting the guitar, singing singing singing -- it’s all about the body, transforming the body into music. Chuck Mangione was right, as he tenderly embraced his flugelhorn. It feels so good.

-- photo of Christy McWilson and John Olufs's hair and chin by Joe Mabel

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