By Liz Tracy
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The case of Charlie Pickett is one of rock 'n' roll's classic stories of almost-was. The Dania Beach homeboy spent much of the '80s working the road from here to the heartland, producing three highly acclaimed albums and an EP, and he garnered a rabid local following in the process. But it all came to an abrupt end. Poised on the precipice of what could have been — hell, what should have been — his big national 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 around his music. And now, 20 years later, Chicago's 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 half a dozen shows a year, and while he's grayer and a bit paunchier than the charismatic frontman he once was, his seamless fusion of blues, country, and unapologetic rock 'n' roll maintains the same abandon and intensity it possessed in the early '80s. 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-'80s, Pickett dominated the local music scene, making him one of South Florida's most revered rockers, a reputation that lingers even today.
"It surprises me more than anybody else," he says. "I've heard it, I've read it, 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."
Still, it was talent that, in 1984, led the band to Minneapolis, where it was signed by Twin Tone Records, home to rock 'n' roll renegades like Soul Asylum and the Replacements. Route 33, his first and only album for the label, came out in 1986; it was well-received by critics but never reached the wider audience the label and artist hoped for. So Pickett did what was natural and went back to touring. Signing with another local label, Safety Net, in 1987, Pickett and Salton recorded one final record, The Wilderness, enlisting a high-profile producer in R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. "Peter really got involved in that album," Pickett recalls. "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, released in 1988, failed to sell competitively. Discouraged and dejected, Pickett called it quits after a final tour in '88 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. So we always had to keep rolling. 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. We were all over the country, and nothing bigger ever happened."
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 about eight years ago, Bloodshot Records, whose roster includes Ryan Adams, the Waco Brothers, the Mekons, and other insurgents, contacted Pickett, offering to release a best-of package.
The new album, 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. "That was a connection from way back, and I'm grateful for that."
That connection actually germinated with a 1985 concert Pickett performed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that 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 big appearances are planned for the remainder of the year, and there are plans to record. But at age 55, Pickett knows his audiences will be a lot younger than he. "I've worried a bit about that," he admits. "At the shows I played recently [such as his captivating sets during the Sheila Witkin Memorial concerts], 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 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, 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."