Solid backing onstage boosts singer's comfort in 'Bed of Roses' tour
It's not often that a performer asks to come to Pittsburgh, and rarer still to go out of one's way to play a gig at a small club in town. But when Christy McWilson was planning her current tour, she was adamant that Sunday's date at the Club Cafe be included on the itinerary.
"Every time I've played Pittsburgh, there have been people in the audience who knew the words to my songs," she offers in way of explanation for routing her tour here after a Saturday night stop in Illinois.
It's fitting that McWilson is making a long jaunt before she plays Pittsburgh. "Bed of Roses," her new album, is perfect for a cross-country trip, the kind of music that would sound great coming from a jukebox in an all-night diner. There's a definite country-western flair to her sound, but there's also a bit of rockabilly and rock 'n' roll in the music's seams.
McWilson began her career singing with Seattle cult favorites The Picketts, a band that rarely toured.
"We ran the gamut from bands like Rockpile to the '50s country thing," she says, noting the Picketts diverse influences and sounds.
Although the Picketts never gained much of an audience beyond the Northwest, they did have one important fan: Dave Alvin. The ex-Blasters singer and guitarist, who won a Grammy Award for his album "Public Domain" last year, encouraged McWilson to pursue a solo career.
"I was kind of intimidated, because I'm not really a solo person," she says. "I like to hide out in a group. But I'm really glad Dave did that. I'm really grateful Dave saw something in me and nurtured me along."
McWilson's first solo effort, "The Lucky One," was released in 2000. It showcased her vocals — she's been called a hybrid of Patsy Cline and Chrissie Hynde — but got little attention otherwise, even though her backing musicians included Alvin, her husband, Scott McGaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows, and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck.
"We didn't get much airplay because there was too much pedal steel," McWilson says. "Dave said he heard that from several people, they heard the pedal steel and were like, 'forget it.'"
Why pedal steel guitar is anathema to some folks is unknowable, but for "Bed of Roses," McWilson and Alvin decided to dial up an extra dose of rock 'n' roll with the same cast of musicians. Gone were the niceties of the first recording sessions.
"The first time we were curtsying and bowing and insisting 'You take the last piece of cake,'" she says.
McWilson became more comfortable working with Alvin, and with herself. She says that she is a naturally shy person who tends to be pessimistic.
Yet the rousing, raucous sound of "Bed of Roses" seems to indicate that at 44, she's turned the corner — personally and professionally. She admits to a sense of melancholy about her career, about when "you're 22, think how great you felt. And now the endless road seems bumpy," she says. "I'm kind of nervous about what's going to happen."
Yet whenever she feels down, all McWilson has to do is look at the people backing her onstage. Alvin, McGaughey and Bobby Lloyd Hicks and Joe Terry from Alvin's band, the Guilty Men, are touring with her.
"I can't explain how I feel," she says, "except to say this is a really big thing for me. It's like a birthday party in my honor. I'm kind of floored they've all volunteered to do this. It was Dave's idea, and everybody said 'yes.'"