The case of Charlie Pickett is one of rock and roll's classic stories of almost-was. The Dania homeboy spent much of the Eighties working the road from here to the heartland, produced three highly acclaimed albums and an EP, and garnered a rabid local following in the process. But it all came to an abrupt end. Poised on the precipice of the big breakthrough, he walked away frustrated, fed-up, and convinced he'd never be more than a regional wannabe.
In the aftermath, he became a lawyer. But in the ensuing years, a national cult following began to build. And now, 20 years later, the Chicago-based Bloodshot Records is providing some long-overdue recognition: On October 7, the label will release the anthology Bar Band Americanus: The Best of Charlie Pickett and ...
Pickett, however, has never disappeared entirely. He still averages a half-dozen shows a year, and while he's grayer and a bit paunchier, his seamless fusion of blues, country, and unapologetic rock and roll maintains the same abandon and intensity it possessed in the early Eighties. That's when he, guitarist Johnny Salton, bassist Dave Froshnider, and drummer Johnny "Sticks" Galway segued from being strictly a cover band and reinvented themselves as Charlie Pickett and the Eggs. Their debut album, Live at the Button, released in 1982 on the local Open Records label, became an instant classic and garnered a coveted rave review from England's esteemed music weekly Melody Maker.
The Cowboy Junkie Au-Go-Go EP followed two years later, drawing kudos from respected rock scribe Robert Christgau of the Village Voice. By the mid-Eighties, Pickett ruled the local rock scene. It's a reputation that lingers even today. "It surprises me more than anybody else," he says. "I've heard it, I've read, and I'm thoroughly flattered by it. But it doesn't feel that way to me. What we do seems so natural and not particularly talented."
Nevertheless, it was talent that took the band members to Minneapolis, where they were signed by Twin Tone Records, home to the likes of Soul Asylum and the Replacements. Route 33, Pickett's first and only album for the label, was well received but never reached the wider audience that the label and band had hoped for. So Pickett went back to touring. Signing with another South Florida label, Safety Net, Pickett and Salton recorded one final album, The Wilderness, enlisting a high-profile producer, REM guitarist Peter Buck. "Peter really got involved in that album," Pickett remembers. "He didn't just show up; he didn't just dial it in. He got to the studio before we arrived and left when we left."
Unfortunately, like its predecessors, The Wilderness failed to sell. Discouraged, Pickett called it quits following a final tour in 1988 with Salton, Galway, and new bassist Marco Pettit. "We were at the same level, playing the same clubs, but we didn't grow in popularity. We'd go out and make some money, but we'd get back and we didn't have money in our pockets," he says. "Yeah, we rubbed shoulders with some awfully big bands and some awfully big musicians, and yeah, it was a great feeling. But when that exposure couldn't put the band across and get us a bigger following, I started to feel we were probably never gonna really break through."
Pickett also thinks the band was out of sync with the changing times. "During our last tour, we were playing to an awful lot of audiences that were nothing but just mosh-pit guys. We had always gotten an audience where girls would come and dance, and they were fun to play for. We were really proud of that. But I perceived that L.A. thrash was going to take over the world. Of course, I was completely wrong! Salton claims that if we had stuck around, we would have gotten recognized, but I'm not sure of that. We didn't write songs as well as Nirvana."
Pickett went back to school, earned his law degree, and began practicing commercial litigation. Then last year, Bloodshot Records, whose roster includes Ryan Adams, the Waco Brothers, and the Mekons, contacted Pickett, offering to release a best-of package. Bar Band Americanus includes 17 songs from his old albums and two unreleased tracks. "The nice part of it was that Bloodshot reached out to me," Pickett says proudly. "It was really great. That was a connection from way back and I'm grateful for that."
That connection germinated with a 1985 concert Pickett performed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was attended by a local college kid named Rob Miller — later Bloodshot's cofounder and current co-owner. "That Charlie Pickett show was one of the essential elements in my brain getting around how punk and country could get in the pit and fuck each other up, and I wasn't even aware it was happening," Miller maintains. "That cross-genre, big-bang era of music when it seemed that possibilities were everywhere, organically, without forethought or afterthought. It's not a stretch to say that Charlie Pickett and the Eggs — and a few other bands like X, Knitters, and the Meat Puppets — made Bloodshot possible. It gave me a template upon which to build an outlook. To me, his music has held up really well against so many others."
Pickett says he's waiting to see how well the album sells before deciding whether he'll resume touring. Regardless, a few appearances are scheduled for the remainder of the year, and there are plans to record. However, at age 55, Pickett knows his audiences will be much younger than him. "I've worried a bit about that," he admits. "At the shows I played recently, there were mostly young people — a lot of people my age, but a lot of them just flat-out young, like 15 years old. I've thought about how I should do this, but so far I've said I'm just going to do what I do. I don't want to dye my hair, so at my age I think I can wear a cowboy hat. Besides, it's all my friends at Churchill's and Alligator Alley and these places I've been playing for years. I tell myself that Willie Nelson does this and nobody says anything about him. I'm just going to do it and hope I never embarrass myself."
Regardless of what happens from here, Pickett claims he has no regrets. "We went farther than 99 percent of most bands. We got everything but the money. I met beautiful girls, rubbed shoulders with world-famous musicians, been all over the country, and felt so satisfied playing with everybody that was in the band. It was a thrill. I look back and go, Wow, what a great ride."