Josh Pickett has performed for the Queen of England and the Governor of Virginia, but nothing may top the Carroll County musician’s gig Friday. Joined by his cousins and fellow Carroll County musician Jody King, The Church Sisters played for President Barack Obama during his stop Friday in Roanoke.
“It’s not every day you get to play for the president. There is something surreal about being in the same room and carrying on an intimate conversation with the most powerful man in the world,” Pickett said. “It didn’t hit me at the moment, but we got to talk to him for about five minutes about music and the area and different things. And once you get done having that conversation and he leaves on a helicopter, it kind of hits you that we were just talking to one of the most powerful men in the world.”
Pickett, of Cana, began playing when he was 11 years old. His cousin, Robbie Pickett, would always have a guitar and play with his grandfather at family get-togethers.
“He and my grandpa would just sing old traditional songs and that is where I got the first itch to play. I probably pestered him to death to show me chords on that guitar, and luckily he did,” Pickett said.
Pickett apparently learned pretty quickly. After graduating from Carroll County High School in 2001, he traveled full-time with Valerie Smith of Nashville for about a year. Wanting to return closer to home, he joined the now-defunct No Speed Limit Band. That band, which also featured local banjo guru Stevie Barr, went on to play for the Queen of England in Richmond in 2008 and performed at then-Governor Tim Kaine’s inauguration in 2006. It was there where Kaine played harmonica with the band, causing No Speed Limit to garner national attention.
“That was one of our bigger breaks. At his inauguration all these news stations were there and he played harmonica and it went viral,” Pickett said. “All the news stations picked it up and we got a lot of dates out of that.”
After performing 110 dates about two years ago, No Speed Limit took time off from traveling and the band members eventually went their own way in a peaceful split. Pickett took a job with Larry Cordle, a well-known songwriter from Nashville who has written nearly 20 #1 country hits. Pickett still plays with Cordle when not playing with The Church Sisters.
But Pickett’s biggest break came early last week when he got a call from the White House. In Hillsville with his parents, Larry and Linda Pickett, Josh’s cell phone had died when he actually received the call.
“I checked my messages and I had one from the White House asking if I would be willing to perform for the president on Friday. So I called them back and talked to them and figured what exactly they wanted,” Pickett said. “They were looking for entertainment to represent this region because it’s well known for bluegrass. So I mentioned my cousins, The Church Sisters, and told them I could bring them along, that they have a pretty good buzz going. They said great, ‘If you can get them to come, we’d love to have you.’”
The Church Sisters consist of Pickett on guitar and mandolin, King on the banjo, and twin sisters Sarah and Savannah Church sing (with Savannah on fiddle and Sarah on mandolin). Pickett said the group was overwhelmed to see a crowd of more than 3,500 people at the event. They were even more overwhelmed to actually meet the president.
“The girls got a lot of media coverage so it was really good for them and us. We actually got to meet the President after we played,” Pickett said. “They took us in the back room and when he came off the stage he said, ‘There are my singers,’ and pointed them out. He came over and spoke to us and said, ‘You guys are the first entertainment I have had that I have actually come out of the holding area and listened to. I had to ask management who these girls are? He said, ‘Your voices are like angels.’”
Pickett said the president told the group he really enjoyed their music and asked where he could get a copy of their CD. After volunteering to give Obama a copy, the president refused.
“He said, ‘I want to buy one. Just give your web address to my manager and we will see if we can get one,’” Pickett said of the president’s remarks. “He said, ‘I would love for Michelle to hear you, and the only way to do that would be to get you in the White House sometime.’ The girls lit up when he said that, and I think they will probably get us up there to play sometime. It was just a really neat day. It couldn’t have turned out any better for us.”
Aside from the performance for Obama, 2012 has been a banner year for The Church Sisters. Pickett said the group made it past the Celebrity Judges round on TV show America’s Got Talent this year. But after getting through to the Las Vegas round, Pickett said the group got a call from the show’s producer saying he felt like they would be a better fit for a new MTV show featuring Randy Jackson from American Idol.
“It was the same producers, so they didn’t put us through America’s Got Talent to keep us for this other show,” Pickett said. “We are in the midst of doing all the interviews and all the work we are going to have to do for that one. If we do get on that, it will happen in Los Angeles.”
Pickett said The Church Sisters’ material is bluegrass, but heading toward the direction of country music. The twin sisters recently recorded a track for an album titled Mark Twain’s Words and Music on Jimmy Buffet’s record label. Other musicians featured on the album include Brad Paisley, Vince Gill and Sheryl Crow. The band also recently finished an album titled ‘There’s You,’ at Pickett’s recording studio in Cana.
Pickett, who lives in Cana with his wife LeAnn, also teaches private mandolin, guitar and bass lessons at his studio, Pickett’s Recording. Anyone interested in lessons can call him at (276) 733-7199.