“You can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him.”
That headline above might seem like a bold statement, but when you realise those words came from none other than the Nobel Prize winner for Literature, the one and only Mr Bob Dylan in reference to Jesse Winchester, you realise the kudos of the statement, and Winchester’s place in the pantheon of the singer songwriter.
Winchester was born on May 17th, 1944 in Louisiana, and raised in Mississippi until his family relocated to Memphis, where he soaked up the sounds of the glorious mix of black and white acts played on the local radio stations, inspiring him to pick up the guitar and in time actively get involved in the local music scene. However, shortly after graduating from Williams College, Massachusetts in 1966, he received his draft notice, and would make a decision that would dramatically change his life. Four days before his draft was due to start he bought a one way ticket to Canada and didn’t look back.
Settling in Montreal, Winchester quickly immersed himself in the city’s music community, playing in bands and as a solo act, where he started to perform his own material. It was at this point he came to the attention of The Bands, Robbie Robertson, who, suitably impressed, agreed to produce Winchester’s debut album, bringing with him fellow band mate Levon Helm on drums and mandolin and a young wiz kid engineer by the name of Todd Rundgren.
Robertson clearly saw his new protege as something of a kindred spirit with the songs thematically reminiscent of that of The Bands evocative life in the deep south, constantly drifting between bittersweet memories, haunting melodies, and rustic southern charm with enough dirt beneath the fingernails to give everything that air of authenticity. In fact the overall feel of the album, if not the sound, sits perfectly between The Bands eponymous album and John Prine’s debut that came out the following year and deserving of all the reverence that those two albums rightly garner.
The album opens with the joyous rocky ‘Payday’, with some fine boogie woogie piano playing from Ken Pearson and electric guitars to the fore. Elvis Costello, no slouch in the songwriting department himself, and a massive fan of Winchester, would cover this track on his 1995 album ‘Kojak Variety’. This is followed by ‘Biloxi’ a beautiful moody piano led song where Winchester reminisces of a simpler time and a happier place. Again this song would go on to be covered by numerous artists, including Jimmy Buffet, Tom Rush and Ted Hawkins.
Despite the circumstances that drove Winchester from his homeland, his lyrics show no bitterness, in fact unlike many who chose the same path, he deliberately steers clear of the cynicism or politically motivated songs, instead choosing to focus on both his memories and the challenges of his new surroundings. Track three ‘Snow’, co-written with Robertson clearly emphasis the dichotomy between his southern origins and his northern exile as he sings “I was tuning in the six o’clock newscast and the weather man mentioned snow. As soon as I heard the four letter word, I was making my plans to go”.
The following track ‘The Brand New Tennessee Waltz‘, was the first track that Winchester wrote, and still probably his best known. This acoustic guitar led number is accompanied by some beautiful violin playing by Al Cherney as Winchester sings of love only being truly appreciated once it’s lost, all combining to create and old time feel, as if the song had been written decades earlier. Though he would later become somewhat dismissive of the song, claiming it to be too cryptic and, an obvious first song, it would non the less to be covered by such as the Everly Brothers, Joan Baez, Patti Page and Ronnie Hawkins.
Track four ‘That’s a Touch I Like’, has the feel of an old fashioned courting song, which simply bounces out of the speakers, with more stompin’ boogie piano playing, whilst Levon Helms loose limbed drumming enables the tune to swing in a way only he can, ably supported by Bob Boucher on bass.
Next is one of the albums true highlights,‘Yankee Lady’. In reviewing the album for Rolling Stone, in the August of that year, Ed Ward described the song as “the unquestioned masterpiece of the album, a song that may well define, organic Americana”, a descriptive term more associated with recent times, and which for me, is the earliest written definition of Americana as a musical style that I have so far come across. He went on to add, “with Levon Helm supplying wide open spaces (fifths, fourths, tenths) on the mandolin and an absolutely believable personal experience providing the lyrics, I dare someone to listen to it and fail to be moved”. Acclaimed music critic of the time, Robert Christgau, also eulogised about the track saying, “the most dangerous gotta-hit-the-road-now-babe song ever, because it makes male chauvinism seem emotionally responsible. You really feel that fate has betrayed the bread baking and winning paragon of the title, not her gentle love slave Jesse”. Again the song proved popular with fellow artist, with the likes of Tim Hardin, Brewer and Shipley, and Mathew’s Southern Comfort all attempting to put their own stamp on this timeless classic.
Next comes ‘Quiet about it’, where Robertson and Helm combine to help gives this track a rockier edge, more familiar with their day job, while Winchester’s lyrics take a subtle dig at God and religion. He follows this with ‘Skip Rope Song’, a plaintive minor key piano number that helps give what appears at first to be a simple love song a slightly more sinister edge, leading into ‘Rosie Shy’, where he finds himself besotted by the title character, only for his love to be unrequited.
Things turn much darker on track ten, ‘Black Dog’. In his review in Rolling Stone, Ed Ward described this track as both “terrifying and brooding”, and lyrics such as “Have you seen the black dogs teeth sharp like a knife. Have you seen them tear upon a throat to take a life”, over a minimalistic accompaniment, creating a much more disturbing atmosphere, all the more profound in the context of the rest of the album.
The album closes with ‘The Nudge’, a song based around a popular dance of the time, which struts it’s stuff with guitar riffs, a department that Robertson is wonderfully assisted through out the album by Dave Rea as well as Winchester, with the overall feel of the track sounding like it could have fallen off the back of The Bands self titled album. In fact, Robertson main contribution to the album was to recognise that its strength lay in the songs, and to keep the production simple and uncluttered. Returning to Ed Ward’s review in Rolling Stone, he said of the songs, “not only can they be listened to, but can also be hummed, sung, remembered and, at times quoted” and that, “his songs transcend all barriers with the exception of one; art”.
Winchester’s follow up album, ‘Third Down, 110 To Go’, produced by Rundgren is also a fine album, and some could argue that here his singing is more assured, but the overall strength and depth of the songs on the debut mark this album out as the true classic.
In 1977. President Jimmy Carter announced an amnesty for those who had left the country to avoid being sent to Vietnam, but Winchester was in no hurry to return home. Instead he would continue to release wonderful albums, and though they became less frequent as the years passed and his health deteriorate they continued to supply a rich vein of material to be mined by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Bonnie Raitt, and Willie Nelson.
Winchester passed away on April 11th, 2014, aged 69.
For me, a classic albums need to be both of its time and timeless. Jesse Winchester’s debut album meets this criteria on both fronts. Of its time because it spoke for, and resonated with, a disaffected American generation, tired and angry with their country’s involvement in a far off war and sympathetic to those with a more pacifistic view. Timeless, because over fifty years later it is still considered a touchstone of its genre, and a continues source of inspiration for all those fortunate to have discovered its undiluted magic.
Excellent article about someone who doesnt seem to get a lot of press – and deserves more
Many thanks Gordon. Let’s hope the article encourages more people to discover Jesse Winchester and especially his debut album.