Saturday, September 5, 2009

Looking Back at Jesse Winchester

Jesse Winchester is one of my favorite singer-songwriters. He emerged in the early '70s and quickly grabbed listeners' attention with the song"The Brand New Tennessee Waltz" on his eponymous debut. Jesse had a compelling backstory too, having relocated from Memphis to Montreal to avoid the draft. Deeply respected by many singers and musicians, his songs have been well-covered.

His first album was produced by Robbie Robertson of the Band and engineered by Todd Rundgren, who got Winchester signed with Bearsville Records for the brunt of his output in the 1970s. His released one jewel after another. Third Down, 110 to Go in 1972 (featuring "Isn't That So?" a driving spiritual); Learn to Love It in 1974 (memorable for "Mississippi, You're On My Mind", gospel-inflected numbers like "Wake Me" and "I Can't Stand Up Alone" as well as the terrific traditional song, "Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt"); Let the Rough Side Drag in 1976; Nothing But a Breeze in 1977 (with the lovely "Bowling Green", "My Songbird", "You Remember Me" as well as the funny "Twigs and Seeds" and "Rhumba Man"); A Touch on the Rainy Side in 1978 (besides the title song, I also recommend "Little Glass of Wine"); and finally, his last release on Bearsville, 1981's Talk Memphis.

He himself never gained much notoriety. Perhaps that was due to the fact that he didn't start touring the States until 1977. By that time he had a wonderful catalog to draw upon but unfortunately musical styles had changed radically. He continued to record regularly until 1981.

I heard him a concert a couple of times when I lived in Chicago. The first time, at a bar directly across from Wrigley Field (the Cubby Bear), I chatted with him before he went on stage. I recall asking him what he preferred: performing or writing songs. Jesse told me that if he had his druthers he'd rather just be a songwriter, and mail his stuff out for others to record. It seemed to fit with his personality: he comes across as a shy guy.

I recall seeing him one more time in Chicago at a folk club called Holstein's. There wasn't much of a crowd for him that night, and I got the distinct sense that the management was taking a financial bath on his appearance. I felt bad for Jesse, because I admire him so much and think he deserves to be known more wide.

Anyway, the '80s and the '90s saw only one release each decade. They were fabulous--you can expect nothing but perfection from him. (Check out the lovely "I Don't Think You Love Me Anymore" from 1988's Humor Me.)Over the last decade he's released two albums, and he promoted his latest, Love's Filling Station, recently on NPR.

In the interview, he described himself as a "traditional" songwriter. That's absolutely true: his songs fit the classic verse-chorus structure that's found in most pop music. His roots are folk, but his sound can be gospel and country and rhythm and blues flavored. Jesse has a sweet soft high-timbred voice and his lyrics are impeccable. He has an intensely personal style: he does talk about himself in his songs, often self-deprecatingly, but he displays an almost Old World respect for women and he paints stories of small towns that seem to arise from his Southern youth.

I hope that you'll introduce yourself to Jesse Winchester. He'll win your affection quickly.

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