It was either in late 1969 or early 1970, Rolling Stone, at the time the primary source of music news reported that Robbie Robertson was producing an album by Jesse Winchester, a draft resistor living in Canada. That was enough to make me buy the album when it appeared later that year without hearing it. To say it was more than worth it is a huge understatement.
Jesse Winchester turned out to be a songwriter of uncommon lyrical depth. But on top of that he was a truly soulful singer and an ear for great melodies. Winchester wrote songs that were so powerful you wanted to learn them the minute you heard them. If you weren’t a singer, then you played them over and over.
In retrospect it’s kind of amazing that the often maligned Albert Grossman signed him, not only to his then brand new record label, Bearsville, but also as an artist knowing that there was no way Winchester was going to tour to promote the records.
That first album had one photo that appeared four times on the gatefold sleeve that depicted Winchester as some sort of early 20th century or maybe late 19th century outlaw. The opening song “Payday” was funky, maybe the funkiest song Winchester would record and rocking as was the song of questioning faith, “Quiet About It.” It was the two country flavored ballads, “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” and “Yankee Lady” that were instant classics and sealed Winchester’s reputation as a songwriter to be watched, followed by the slow moody “Biloxi.” Those three songs would end up being covered by innumerable artists.
Winchester’s second album, Third Down, 110 To Go, produced by Todd Rundgren and featuring the great Amos Garrett on guitar both in the cover shot and the photos inside and also in the music showed a much softer side with acoustic finger-picked ballads. The opening bluesy song “Isn’t That So” had touches of gospel, and many of the songs seemed like meditations. And while the songs weren’t as hard hitting as the first album, it was hard to ignore songs like “Dangerous Fun” or the closing “All Of Your Stories.”
The third album Learn To Love It had a looser feel and seemed a but more upbeat, but included four covers, including two songs written by Russell Smith who would soon became known with the Amazing Rhythm Aces. One of the songs, “Third Rate Romance” was actually sung my Smith who was not credited for the vocal, and if Winchester was on the track at all, it was to sing harmony. Still the album had one absolute classic, “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind,” as well as another excellent song, “Defying Gravity.” It would be the last Winchester album I bought without hearing it first.
On January 21, 1977, his second day in office, President Jimmy Carter made good on a campaign promise and pardoned all those who went to Canada to avoid fighting in the Vietnam war. A little over four months later on May 26th, I finally got to see Jesse Winchester perform at the Bijou Café in Philadelphia. The show was recorded by radio station WMMR for future broadcast and eventually released on a limited edition promo disc. Backed by a tight and versatile band, Winchester did a 14 song set that encompassed all his albums up to that point, though he did not do “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” or my personal favorite, “Quiet About It.” He came across as a totally genuine if somewhat quirky and offbeat performer, actually dancing the rhumba on his song “Rhumba Man.”
A few years ago, a friend of mine who performs under the name John Train was opening for Jesse Winchester at the Sellersville Theater, about 40 miles north of Philly and invited me to see the show. Winchester performed solo, playing a gut string guitar, playing songs that spanned his entire career and was simply entrancing. Though he left out his funkier songs, everything about that show from the power and poetry of his lyrics to the beauty and inventiveness of his melodies to the dynamics of his phrasing and his sheer vocal range was magical. I left wondering if what he did was ever truly captured on disc, but also realizing it was one of the more real and honest performances I’d ever witnessed.
Reading various articles and interviews over the past few days, Winchester seemed to take a very practical approach in talking about his career and the music business. Ultimately, I don’t think he wanted to be trapped by the encumbrance of stardom or celebrity. It seemed all he really wanted to do was write really good songs and sing them.
“So let all of your passionate violins play a tune for a Tennessee kid.”