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Jesse Winchester: An Appreciation

Music Features Jesse Winchester
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Jesse Winchester: An Appreciation

For 10 years, from 1967 to 1977, Jesse Winchester couldn’t set foot in the United States, the nation where he had lived until he was 23. But his songs could visit on his behalf, and they represented him well, getting themselves recorded by everyone from the Everly Brothers to Ralph Stanley, from Wilson Pickett to Jimmy Buffett. Songs such as “Mississippi You’re on My Mind,” “Biloxi,” “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” and “L’Aire de la Louisiane” were rooted in specific places that the exiled songwriter remembered with an intense longing and fondness that infected every listener.

Winchester, who died Friday of bladder cancer at age 69, never had a top-100 album in his native country, though he had two in his adopted homeland of Canada. But his songs were more famous than he was, admired for their understated craft, especially by Winchester’s fellow musicians. “You can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him,” Bob Dylan once said, and the 2012 tribute album Quiet About It featured Winchester’s songs recorded by Elvis Costello, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams, James Taylor, Rosanne Cash, Lyle Lovett and Allen Toussaint.

He was born in Louisiana and lived in Mississippi until he moved to Memphis at age 12. Distantly related to Robert E. Lee, Winchester was a thorough Southerner, an admirer of B.B. King and Steve Cropper. But after attending Williams College in Massachusetts and spending a year abroad in Munich, his worldview had expanded, so when he got his draft notice in 1967, he flew to Montreal rather than show up for induction. “I was so offended by someone’s coming up to me and presuming to tell me who I should kill and what my life was worth,” he told Rolling Stone in 1977.

So there he was in the province of Quebec, unable to cross the border without risking prison, barred from the Mississippi River’s southern stretch that he loved so much. If he couldn’t visit that territory in person, he would visit it in song. And he soon realized the secret power of the expatriate, who can better perceive his home from a distance than from within it. James Joyce, Elizabeth Bishop and Dexter Gordon had all done the same, and Winchester started writing songs in Montreal about Memphis, Biloxi, Clarksdale and New Orleans.

Before long, Winchester had put together a band and was playing the clubs around eastern Canada. In 1969, Robbie Robertson, a native Canadian, visited Winchester as he was recording demos in the basement of an Ottawa monastery. The Band’s lead guitarist and chief songwriter was so impressed that he agreed to produce Winchester’s debut album, released the following year.

“A friend brought Robbie down to meet me,” Winchester told me in 1987, “just after Music from Big Pink had come out, and I was crazy about that record. He liked what I was doing and took the tape down to his manager, Albert Grossman, and that was the beginning of my recording career. Robbie was great; he was very decisive and cut everything live, which took a lot of the tedium out of recording.”

That album, Jesse Winchester, was an impressive introduction. The lyrics had a ruthlessly edited terseness but were still able to evoke pictures of the landscape and people Winchester had left behind. The second track was “Biloxi,” perhaps his greatest song. Three verses without a chorus, the song depicts a small boy, knee-deep in the Gulf of Mexico, watching the pretty girls splashing nearby, discovering the small animals swimming in the tidal pools, awed by the stars reflecting in the receding tide. Those girls, animals and stars are small hints of the larger, more complicated world beyond his child’s experience, a world of romance, bittersweet truths and wars, a world suggested by the reddened western sky, “off towards New Orleans.”

But it wasn’t just the lyrics that made Winchester such a promising talent. The funky, Southern-soul rhythms on tunes such as “Payday,” “Skip Rope Song” and “The Nudge” evoked the Memphis/Muscle Shoals/New Orleans region as vividly as any of the words. Though Winchester is often discussed as if he were a folkie singer/songwriter, he was always a rock ‘n’ soul bandleader at heart, and the way the melody fit the groove was as important to him as the way the words fit the melody.

“When Elvis went into the army,” he told me in 1987, “me and my friends all turned our attention to black music. It was raw; it was simple; it came from the heart. The ultimate Memphis band was Booker T. & the MGs, two black guys and two white guys. That was perfect—the way it should be as far as we were concerned. We heard a lot more black music than kids up north did. When I went to college up north, I was appalled by all these bob-tailed Rickys and Pattys who wouldn’t have gotten in the door in Memphis.”

Todd Rundgren, who had been Robertson’s engineer on Jesse Winchester, co-produced the 1972 follow-up, Third Down, 110 to Go, with Winchester. The songwriter produced the third album, 1974’s Learn To Love It, by himself, working with the Tennessee rhythm section of drummer Butch McDade and bassist Jeff Davis. They called themselves Jesse Winchester and the Rhythm Aces and recorded the first-ever version of Russell Smith’s “Third Rate Romance.” Soon after, Smith, McDade and Davis formed the Amazing Rhythm Aces in Nashville.

As good as these first three albums were, their commercial impact was blunted, first by the collapse of Ampex Records, and then by Winchester’s inability to tour in the U.S. But on Jan. 21, 1977, President Jimmy Carter announced an amnesty for the Vietnam War draft exiles and Winchester was finally able to visit his family and to perform his songs for his American audience. Producer Brian Ahern, with help from his wife Emmylou Harris and her friends such as Ricky Skaggs and James Burton, recorded Winchester’s fifth album, 1977’s Nothing but a Breeze. Harris promptly recorded two of Winchester’s songs, “Defying Gravity” and “My Songbird,” for her landmark 1978 album, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town.

In 1981, Winchester finally got to record in his old hometown of Memphis, working with Al Green’s producer Willie Mitchell on Talk Memphis. The album’s lead-off track, “Say What” became Winchester’s only top-40 single in the U.S. (he had three in Canada). Things slowed down after that, as Winchester released only three new studio albums between 1982 and today (though one more album is said to be finished for a release later this year).

“None of my records give a real indication of where I’m at,” he told me in 1987. “They just don’t come close to what they’re supposed to be—I have no use for any of them. For a long time I didn’t even want to make another one because it has always been such an unpleasant procedure for me. The real tedious part is after the record is made and you have to go out and promote it and tell interviewers how great it is.”

Even as he did his best to avoid the studio, he continued to perform live and to write marvelous songs that countless performers recorded for him. He started to get a lot of cuts by country artists such as Buddy Miller, George Strait, Waylon Jennings, the Judds, New Grass Revival, Reba McEntire, Gary Allan, the Mavericks and Vince Gill.

“My songs fit more easily into a country thing than they would into a rock thing,” he told me. “I think appreciation for country is a sign of maturity. It has a lot to do with accepting who you are and where you’re from. As much as we love black music, we’re not black; we’re white.

“For me it happened when I moved to Canada. I couldn’t find any more black music on the radio, so I started listening to country, because it was the next closest thing. People were always telling me I sounded country, and it annoyed me, because I wanted to sound like James Brown or Sam & Dave. But like I say, as you get older, you adjust. Country is closer to the roots emotionally than rock. It’s the difference between whispering in your lover’s ear and screaming at her.”

Winchester continued to live in Montreal until 2002, when he remarried and moved to Charlottesville, Va. By then the draft-dodger label had faded considerably, and he felt he could return to the U.S. without seeming to take undue advantage of the amnesty and without seeming to turn his back on the Canadian community he’d joined. Being an expatriate had fueled some of his greatest writing, but now it was time to close the distance between himself and the South.

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