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Sunday, March 24, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Concert Preview

Seattle alt.country singer enters new phase

Seattle Times music critic

Christy McWilson and her band


7 and 10 p.m. Saturday at Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle; $15, 800-965-4826, Ticketweb.
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Christy McWilson has long been a familiar figure on the Seattle music scene. She was one of the perky, flip-haired girls in the Dynette Set, a delightful New Wave band back in the 1980s, and in the '90s was the linchpin of the Picketts, the beloved country-rock band that was alt.country before alt.country was cool.

Now McWilson is in a new phase of her career, heralded by the impressive "Bed of Roses," her second solo album on the Hightone label. An eclectic collection of well-written, smartly produced songs featuring an impressive roster of musicians, the CD shows that her voice is better than ever, with a smooth sweetness, a tangy twang and a knowing way with lyrics.

McWilson is quick to credit others for the success of the disc, most notably producer Dave Alvin, a founding member of the Los Angeles roots rock band The Blasters.

"I thought I was going to just do another rock 'n' roll album," the dark-haired, dark-eyed McWilson explained over a steaming bowl of clam chowder at an Alki Beach cafe. "But he was like, 'No!' And I was almost in tears. 'But I wanna rock out!' He wanted to show the more vulnerable side of me. And I think I was afraid of that."

McWilson, 45, is frank about psychological fears she's had to overcome throughout her career.

"I am not a natural stage person," she confessed. "I feel stripped. I do! It's really hard for me. I have constant anxiety dreams where I'm naked on a park bench, with people looking at me."

Familiar faces

She's bolstered by the fact that on the national "Bed of Roses" tour, which includes shows at 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday at the Tractor Tavern in Ballard, she'll have lots of onstage support. In addition to guitarist Alvin, her band will include her husband, bassist/keyboardist Scott McCaughey, who's a member of the Young Fresh Fellows and a permanent sideman for R.E.M., and drummer Blackie from the Picketts, along with several other musicians. The tour opens Friday in Portland and includes shows in Minneapolis, Chicago, Pittsburgh and other cities before concluding April 9 at the Mercury Lounge in New York.

Peter Buck, the R.E.M. guitarist, is featured on the "Bed of Roses" album and is scheduled to play at the Tractor, but he may not make it. His trial in London, for his alcohol-fueled incident on an airplane last year, resumed last week. Nevertheless, he's pledged to be at the Tractor if at all possible.

As it turns out, McCaughey is at the trial, too, because he was a witness. But McCaughey should be finished with his court duties in time to join his wife at the Tractor and on the tour.

"This is such a big deal," she said of the Tractor shows. "It's like somebody throwing you a big birthday party."

Too much togetherness?

She's a little worried, however, about touring with her husband, which they haven't done since the Dynette Set days.

"We're like Superman and Clark Kent," McWilson explained. "You never see us together. We're both too Alpha. We both are strong-willed. You can have band differences and then carry them home with you. It's just better to not be married in a band.

"We have a similarity in energy, though. We both have a real passion about music, and that's the common denominator. And I hope that will pull us through."

McWilson and McCaughey met in the late 1970s when both lived in the same dorm at San Francisco State University. After graduation they came to Seattle, where McCaughey and his friend Chuck Carroll (who also became a member of Young Fresh Fellows) hoped to start a rock magazine.

"The day they came up to Seattle, The Rocket's first issue appeared," McWilson said. "They were bummed. That was God steppin' right in, saying 'You better start a band, boys.' "

McCaughey started the Young Fresh Fellows, and she joined the Dynette Set (for which he sometimes played bass). But even though she loved New Wave, she wanted to write songs that were more country-rock. That's when she joined the Picketts.

"For me, songwriting has been the greatest outlet," she said. "I think it's gotten better and better, like painting or something, you know?"

She said Alvin's inspiration helped.

"You have to be really on top of your game with him," she said. "I can't overstate what an inspiring person he is. He's positive. He's very kind. He just brings out the best in everybody."

She writes songs in the quiet of the night, when McCaughey and their daughter, Nadine, 13, are asleep.

"I'm bipolar and I don't sleep," she revealed. "You can give me all the drugs in the world and I'll still be awake. And (songwriting) entertains me. I'm also really frustrated and furious a lot of the time, so some of that comes out. 'Life's Little Enormities' (the rocking song that opens the album) — could you tell that was about being a parent? It's the most important job in the world and the least respected. That song is about how hard it is."

"The Serpentine River" is a countryish ballad with warm, Linda Ronstadt-like vocals.

"It's probably my favorite song," she said. "When I sing it, I can feel what I was feeling when the music came into my head. It was after this bird died, this little sparrow that had fallen out of its nest and my daughter had picked up. I don't know why this bird affected me so much. But the feeling of the song is still really true to the feelings I was having. It's almost a little monument."

The family business

Asked where her love and affinity for music came from, she said she didn't know until a couple of years ago when she attended her grandmother's funeral in West Virginia and met her mother's extended family for the first time.

"She never told me that her grandfather played dulcimer and made them for a living, and her father played mandolin, and nearly everybody sang or played an instrument. It sounded to me like the Carter Family — the kind of musical family I always admired.

"It was in my blood, and I didn't even know it."

Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312 or pmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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