Lucky Christy McWilson Kicks Off Seattle Extravaganza

Singer/songwriter opens for Patti Smith on opening night of Experience Music Project.

The title was meant to be ironic, but singer-songwriter Christy McWilson truly is The Lucky One these days.

McWilson, who spent the past eight years fronting the frantically roots-rocking Seattle band the Picketts, is backed on The Lucky One by such stellar musicians as Peter Buck and Mike Mills of R.E.M., Rhett Miller of the alt-country Old 97s, dobroist Greg Leisz and guitarist Dave Alvin. The album was released Tuesday on HighTone.

Along with Alvin, who produced The Lucky One, and his Guilty Men band, she'll be opening for punk-poet/rocker Patti Smith on Friday (June 23) as part of the opening day ceremonies for Seattle's Experience Music Project.

"I really do feel amazingly lucky. Like being put on the Patti Smith bill. I have a feeling that was a fluke that we got on that bill, that some political thing happened that I don't know about. I'm pretty flustered," McWilson said from her Seattle home.

"Flustered" wouldn't begin to describe McWilson's reaction to Alvin's offer to produce her first solo album. She had known Alvin from the early '80s, when she was in the "punkish girl group" Dinette Set — "I was in my early 20s and we just kind of trashed up the place; it was great," McWilson said — and he was in the rather more formidable, roots-rocking Blasters.

"The last time I played with him was at the Pier [Seattle's Pier 62/63], and he just shocked me by saying, 'Babe, darlin', why don't you and I make a record?' " McWilson said, her voice diving convincingly into Alvin's deep vocal register.

"He was very persistent. And that's never happened to me before. Any time I wanted to make a record, I had to get up off my butt and chase somebody around, which was really hard for me to do."

Right Place, Right Time

The timing was right for McWilson, the lead singer and songwriter for the Picketts, who recorded an album for Popllama and two for Rounder (one is called The Wicked Picketts, naturally), since they were essentially dormant because of family and work commitments. ("I don't consider the Picketts over. I love the Picketts," McWilson stressed. Her current band features Picketts bassist Walter Singleman and stand-up drummer Leroy "Blackie" Sleep, who had to sit and slow down to back McWilson.)

And yet, at first McWilson hesitated on committing to a solo project, but Alvin "wore me down," she said. She might have been even more cautious if she'd known what was in store for her on the recording.

"I'll tell you, when we first started, I was really shocked. I tend to do what I'm used to doing, which is plain and simple, straight down the line, like the Picketts. And in order to keep from feeling self-conscious, I speed everything up and rock it. And Dave was having none of that.

"He was saying, 'I want to present you as a songwriter.' And I found myself being really shy and kind of resisting that," McWilson said.

"We butted heads quite a bit. But he had a vision. He knew what he wanted to do. I'm really grateful to him, because I would not have done it. And I'm thrilled. I think it turned out great, and I love it."

Alvin and McWilson will present a workshop Saturday at the Experience Music Project, "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Record Production." Given Alvin's controlling hand in making The Lucky One, a subtitle might be, "As Told by Dave Alvin to Christy McWilson."

"I was just shocked," McWilson said of the recording, engineered by Mark Linett at his studio in Glendale, Calif. "I had to just kind of keep my mouth shut. It was an exercise in trust. And I said, you know, I always trust Dave. I think he's got great integrity and I've always really admired him.

"And I was like, 'You have to let.' That was our key word during the sessions, for both of us, 'let.' Things happen when you let things happen. Letting. A big word for me."

More Key Words

"Getting" was another big word for McWilson, who got to work with the likes of vocalist Syd Straw and accordion player Chris Gaffney, not to mention the R.E.M. duo of guitarist Peter Buck (a fellow Seattle resident) and bassist Mike Mills. It probably didn't hurt that McWilson's husband is Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus Five), who is helping R.E.M. record their new album in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Buck "was there from the beginning," McWilson said. "He definitely deferred to Dave, but he had ideas."

Some of those ideas would come as no surprise to followers of R.E.M., especially the jangly country-rock sounds reminiscent of the Byrds. In fact, The Lucky One has a decided 1960s feel, with McWilson at times sounding akin to Linda Ronstadt when she was in her early band, the Stone Poneys.

"I think he had this little vision of an era, and he did that," McWilson said of Alvin. "Like on 'Someday' (RealAudio excerpt), that was to me just a plain shuffle. But he was like, 'No. We're not doing this as a shuffle.' My mouth was hanging open and I was dumbfounded. But I liked it.

"And I think he did the same thing with 'Wishin' (RealAudio excerpt)." He did that whole Tammy Wynette thing, that kind of production. So he did that whole '60s thing. He really pulled a lot of musical stuff out of his pocket."

Star Of The Show

It's easy to get the impression that Alvin is the star of The Lucky One, but that's not the case. He showcases the true attraction, McWilson, who shines with her lovely voice and nuanced songwriting, as on the ironic title song — "Oh, happiness ain't nothing but a misery to me" — and on "The Weight of the World" (RealAudio excerpt), which she terms "a heavy weight indeed/ It pulls a good gal down."

"I'm a neurotic, as most people I meet are. But I definitely am," said McWilson, who has been diagnosed with bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder.

"One of my friends was saying, 'Oh, Christy, you're so full of light serendipity.' And I was thinking about it, that [the songs] all had a [link], which is of me trying to stabilize myself.

"And I was at the studio of Mark Linett, who does a lot of Beach Boys stuff. And Dave was asking me if I wanted to do a cover," said McWilson, who ended up including the Beach Boys' " 'Till I Die" as the only non-original composition on her album.

"That's the song that Brian Wilson wrote, kind of before he went off the deep end. And it's always resonated with me, even before I knew that. My husband would play it and I would kind of choke up. I felt the feeling of it, and it just kind of ties in with where I've been," McWilson said.