“Have you talked to Jesse Winchester? You can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him.” (Bob Dylan)
There´s a lot of room under the radar. That´s mostly okay, but some artists definitively should be embraced by it. Like Jesse Winchester.
Like Bill Flanagan said about him: “I don’t know anyone who dislikes Jesse Winchester’s music. It seems to me that there are only those who love it and those who have never heard it.”
The same Bob Dylan also told us, in his Nobel lecture, the following: “If a song moves you, that´s all that´s important. I don´t have to know what a song means.” So let me start this tribute to the late great Jesse Winchester, showing you what that really means. Jesse was invited to join Elvis Costello´s TV show a few years ago, and the artists were taking turns singing their songs. When Jesse starts to sing his song “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” you could hear a needle drop, when Jesse in all his quiet beaty delivers so much more than the words written for the song, understated by the tears rolling down Neko Case´s cheek and the stunned Costello with misty glasses. A song that moves you. In deed.
The story of Jesse Winchester, of course, started much earlier. He was born 17th of May in 1944, in the southern part of the United States, in Louisiana, and raised in Mississippi. He was a very talented boy in school, and graduated from college in Massachusetts in 1966. When he received his draft notice the next year, to join the Vietnam War, he moved to Canada to avoid military service. As he later told Rolling Stone: “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.” Jesse had started playing guitar in high school, and continued in Canada, joining a band, “Les Astronautes”, and were also starting to write his own songs. With a little help from another canadian, Robbie Robertson, Jesse released his solo debut album in 1970.
Jesse´s name was originally James Ridout Winchester Jr. So – Jesse James it is. An outlaw in his own right, but with a quiet life and a tender voice.
Already from this self-titled album you could see and hear that a great singer/songwriter was born. As in “Biloxi”, steeped in homesickness.
The same could be said of the most known song from this album, actually one of Jesse´s most known songs – period, the beautiful “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz”.
The song is one of Jesse´s most covered songs, among many others Lyle Lovett have covered it, as have Joan Baez, Ralph Stanley and Don Henley.
In 1990 Jesse Winchester played the song on the TV show “American Music Shop”.
Jesse was also very proud of the fact that Everly Brothers made a cover of this one.
The next album was an even more impressive album, sprinkled with Jesse Winchester´s low key poetry and wisdom, as in the song “Do it”.
If the wheel is fixed
I would still take a chance
If we’re treading on thin ice
Then we might as well dance
So I play the fool
But I can’t sit still
Help me get this rock
To the top of this hill
The album was “Third Down, 110 To Go”, and was released in 1972. The first song was the funky “Isn´t That So?” About following your heart, as many of Jesse´s songs. Jesse was especially happy of Wilson Pickett´s cover of this song.
By 1974, Jesse had earned a canadian citizenship and he released his third album, “Learn To Love It”, filled with both his own songs and with cover versions. He also played a slightly rewritten version of the traditional “Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt”, putting in the words “In the year of 1967, as a somewhat younger man, the call to bloody glory came, and I would not raise my hand.”
Even if he now legally was a citizen of Canada, that didn´t help being homesick. Several of his most beautiful songs was released on this album, one of them were the irresistibly “Mississippi You´re On My Mind”.
“I think I see a wagon rutted road
With the weeds growing tall between the tracks,
And along one side runs a
Rusty barbed wire fence and beyond there
Sits an old tar paper shack.”
As many of Jesse´s songs was covered, this song was recorded by the great Jerry Jeff Walker the next year.
And – when it comes to cover versions, it´s always almost impossible to top a Lucinda Williams version of the song. She recorded it as a tribute to Jesse in 2012, part of the beautiful tribute album “Quiet About It – A Tribute To Jesse Winchester”.
The last song that has to be mentioned from this album is the wonderful “Defying Gravity”. It´s a simple song with simple lyrics, but nevertheless, it goes straight to the heart.
The most known version is the one by Emmylou Harris in 1978, and she also included it in her live set from the late seventies. This was one of the many cover versions that were important in getting Jesse´s songs deservedly spread to a wider audience.
The next album, “Let The Rough Side Drag”, wasn´t Jesse´s most ambitious, but he showed that he was a real capable craftsman that always was able to knock out a fine bunch of songs, this time backed of a nice group of musicians in studio, even Paul Butterfield on harmonica.
In 1976 Jimmy Carter introduced an amnesty program, making it possible for Jesse Winchester to come back to the US, even to make a US concert tour. That´s certainly one of the reasons that the next album appeared just one month after the previos, and “Nothing But A Breeze” was released in 1977. It´s the highest charting album for him, but hardly his best, although it has quite a few nice songs, most known “My Songbird”, another song covered by Emmylou Harris. Also in personal ways the amnesty meant much to Jesse, and he was grateful to be able to meet his family down south once again.
Touring in US, he even played with Emmylou and Bonnie, as in this acapella singing.
There is also released a live album from Philadelphia this year.
In 1978 Jesse released “A Touch On The Rainy Side”, the first album recorded in USA, and in Nashville, making it more of a country album. Personally I like “Candida”, a sweet little tune. Jesse was quite disappointed not breaking in the US.
One of the finest songs on the album was the disillusioned “Little Glass of Wine”.
Little glass of wine, a good thing you are here
You’re warm on my lips, warm as a tear
A comfort to the fool who’s restless in his mind
The lover’s trusty potion, you little glass of wine.
After two albums not up to the standards Jesse should be able to, “Talk Memphis” was released in 1981, with “Say What” as his first Top 40 Hit, but the album once again didn´t make it, to Jesse´s big disappointment. Willie Mithcell, known from working with Al Green, sadly wasn´t enough to lift the soulful voice of Jesse to new hights when it came to selling records. The result was an end to Jesse recording with major-label companies.
It should be seven years before the next album, “Humour Me”, released in 1988. The band was fabulous, with bluegrass masters like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Mark O´Connor contributing. It was good, but the songs were still not up to the level of albums in the seventies.
The most catchy song on the record obvious was the cool “Well-A-Wiggy”, later made famous by the “Weather Girls”.
And then, when many of us lost hope about Jesse making a really up-to-standard album again, there it was, eleven years later, the fabulous, catchy, touching, funny, and beautiful album, “Gentleman of Leisure” (1999). His singing was as soulful as ever before, and again the backing was phenomenal, this time with Steve Cropper, Jerry Douglas, back up vocals by The Fairfield Four and so on. Wow – what an album. As a whole it certainly is the album I´ve played the most. It really was so wonderful, in all kind of ways, also on Jesse´s behalf, to see that he could show the world what a high-class singer/songwriter he still was. We waited long, but it really was worth it.
To choose songs from this album is really hard, there is so many great of them, and there is such great variety in styles and moods. Take for instance the beautiful ballad “No Pride At All”, with the result of all the experience and lifelong challenges of a man in his fifties can give you.
“If I know you well
And I think I do
Well along about now
You’ll be wondering how
You’ll be getting through
Are you really so strong
As you say you are?
Why, you never can tell
Hey, I wish you well
Kid, you’re going far
But if ever you’re caught in the corner
If ever your pride should lead to a fall
Bring it to me
I’ve got no pride at all”
Yes, and when it comes to tender love songs, well, Jesse is hard to come by. The combination of Jesse´s soft, tender vocal and the soft, tender words is hard to beat. “Just ´Cause I´m in Love With You” is one of those songs.
“It’s true you’ve got me going round in circles
You keep me so darned dizzy, I could cry
But every time you hurt me I grow a little stronger
I’ll soon be strong enough to say goodbye
And it will be so good to smile
Gee, it’s been a long, long while
After all that I’ve been through
Just cause I’m in love with you”
And then there is the ultimate cool of the title song of the album, “Gentleman of Leisure”. It makes you wanna jump around and dance, just looking for someone who wants to take your hand.
Exactly the same can be said of the perfect “Club Manhattan”, where Steve Cropper both are included in the lyrics and plays great guitar. Jesse is joyful and cool with perfect timing.
“Come on down to Club Manhattan
Have a big Jack Black on ice
They got this, got this guitar player
And boy, he sure plays nice
Just close your eyes, he’s a young Steve Cropper
And it’s nineteen-sixty-two
O I love you, little darlin
But I love Club Manhattan, too”
“Wander My Way Home” is the perfect closer, a gospel song joined by Fairfield Four. One can not know if Jesse thought that maybe this was his last album, but it would also be the perfect way to end his recording career. But – lucky us – there should be more.
Go straight, you can’t miss it
But you’ve got a ways to go
If you get lost, Mister just keep moving
No matter what, you carry on
You may stumble into heaven
You may wander your way home
Just one more song – “That´s What Makes You Strong”, also one of the many highlights on an album full of them. An instant classic, that Jesse also played a lot in his live sets. A song about the paradoxes of life and of love.
“If you love somebody
Then that means you need somebody
And if you need somebody
That’s what makes you weak
But if you know you’re weak
And you know you need someone
O it’s a funny thing
That’s what makes you strong”
The next years there was released several live albums, of variable quality, especially in production. My favorite is “Live On Mountain Stage”, Jesse just with his guitar, but it feels like he in the room with you. And that´s like it should be.
There should be two more studio albums from Jesse´s hand. The tenth was released in 2009, the wonderful “Love Filling Station”. Jesse once again mixed his own songs with personal favorites. Some of his own songs have been hanging around for awhile, and the well of songwriting isn´t longer as it used to be. The great band and Jesse´s convincing vocals still makes the album a little treasure.
It starts out with “Oh, What A Trill”, another light love song, almost a calypso this time.
The old country duet, “Loose Talk”, famous with both Loretta Lynn, Hank Snow, Patsy Cline and Hank Snow, is made into a perfect duet with Claire Lynch. It´s really nice to see how perfect the duet concept fits Jesse very flexible vocal.
He also plays a very fine version of “Far Side Banks Of Jordan”, maybe best known in duet by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Once again Jesse´s thoughts goes to the fact that we´re not gonna live forever.
The studio version of the song that started this story, “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” was also one of the highlights of this album. In the Elvis Costello Show, around the same time, there was played one more of Jesse´s songs, “Payday”. Elvis and Jesse shares vocals, both great. It´s a treat to see how perfect Jesse´s timing and phrasing is in the company of the world stars that “made it” in a way he maybe dreamt of. Still, it´s so great that he got the acknowledgement and the attention this TV show gave him. His performances from this night still makes many people happy and touched, so many years after – it´s like a justice in it, after all. Jesse deserved it.
In 2011 Jesse was diagnosed with cancer, but was treated, and continued touring. The tribute album “Quiet About It”, was released the next year. Elvis Costello contributed the title song.
Mac McAnally made his version of “Defying Gravity”, and James Taylor made a very cool version of “Payday”.
So, in April 2014, it was revealed that Jesse was very ill, and in a few days he were gone for good – he died the 11th of April of cancer, just 69 years old.
But Jesse continued to give us more music. In September 2014 his last studio album was released. And it was quite shocking, as it was both a very fitting album to leave us with, and of very high quality, maybe one of his best.
The album is warm and tender, as we know Jesse by now, still with both his own songs and a few cover versions, like the wonderful version of “Rhythm Of The Rain”. A gentleman of leisure in action.
Even if the album was not sad and depressing at all, quite the opposite, actually, Jesse reminded us kindly, in what should be his last message to the world, that “All That We Have Is Know”, and that it´s only so much the lord can do in the closing song “Just So Much”. And – not to forget – he made us remember – never forget to boogie, as in one of his last live performances, a few months before he died.
But then again, every life has it´s ups and downs, which Jesse also makes us remember in “Everyday I Get The Blues”.
Jesse Winchester was thinking about the great and deep questions of life all the time, maybe even more the later years of his life. Sometimes a believer, sometimes in doubt. I´ll end this journey with even one more song from the fabulous album “Gentleman of Leisure”, that ended with “Wander My Way Home”, but the song before that was “I Wave Bye Bye” – a tender goodbye from the gentle, gracious and humble Jesse Winchester. Nobody knows the hour or the day. Bye bye, Jesse! You will always live in our memories.
“I wave bye bye
I pray God speed
I wish lovely weather
And all the luck that you need
You’ll only sail in circles
So there’s no need to cry
No, I’ll see you again one day
And then I waved bye bye”
Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Jesse Winchester
6 thoughts on “Defying Gravity. About Jesse Winchester.”
Nice. Thank you.
Such a remarkable talent! His music makes my heart sing! You must miss him so very much.
Thanks for this run down on Jesse’s career, I really enjoyed it and plan to spend more time listening to the songs you provided.