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Jesse Winchester

by John Bloner, Jr.

Photograph of Jesse Winchester by Jordi Vidal/Redferns
His voice was a marriage of Roy Orbison with a mourning dove or the articulation of a sigh, and his recording career covered over 30 years, yet I had not heard the music of Jesse Winchester until 2009 when he appeared on the Sundance TV series, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With . . ., to sing a tender tune that made Neko Case cry.

Neko Case
This song, "Sham-A-Lam-Dong-Ding", reminds us that the romantic heart of America still beats strong, while it wraps itself in the style of 1950s-60s R&B classics, such as "Save The Last Dance For Me" and "There Goes My Baby", and uses nonsense lyrics, popular in the doo-wop era, to impart deep emotions.

"I grew up loving to hear the boys singing to the girls," Winchester confessed to CBC Radio. "There's something so sweet about it, so human. It never fails to touch me."

Jesse Winchester emerged in a decade when a musician could entertain with the use of only his voice, paired with a piano or an acoustic guitar. In the 1970s, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman and many more made their names as modern-day troubadours, gifting us with well-turned phrases married to melodies.

From the first song he wrote, "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz", to the final cut on his final album, gentleness flows in his music like the waters of the Wolf merging with the mighty Mississippi river. While I'm a northern boy, living in Wisconsin, and he was the consummate Southerner (even after spending years in Quebec), each time that I listen to his music, I swear I can smell the sweetness of magnolia trees.

After ten years without a new studio release, Winchester delivered Love Filling Station, a summation of everything that this artist had done well over his career. It contains songs that glow, shimmer and shake, thanks to performances by some of newgrass' finest talents: Jerry Douglas on lap steel, Russ Barenberg on guitar, Andy Leftwich on fiddle, and vocalist Claire Lynch, who cuts loose with Jesse on the country rave-up, "Loose Talk."

Love Filling Station begins with the slow weave of "O, What A Thrill", moves to the clog dance beat of "Jump Jim Crow" in "It's A Shame About Him", finds solace from a broken heart with his six strings in "I Turn To My Guitar", and captures the work song tradition in "Wear Me Out" to tell a tale of a man whose mate demands much of him in bed.

The touchstone of this album, however, is a cover of a song co-written and made popular by Ben E. King: "Stand By Me." I've heard this tune hundreds of times by various artists in my life, but it took Winchester's version for me to see its power goes beyond its intoxicating bass line and its ethereal chorus.

Whenever you're at a crossroads in your life, this song has something to say to you. It can carry a secular or religious meaning, drawing its source from an old gospel hymn and, even deeper, from The Book of Psalms.

 In 2013, Winchester returned to the studio to record A Reasonable Amount of TroubleHe'd encountered more than a reasonable amount of trouble since 2011, when he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. In remission from the disease, he was able to create what would be the coda of his career. In February 2014, cancer returned, this time to his bladder. He passed away two months later.

The record doesn't play like a eulogy, even though there's a line in the first track that says adieu in the most beguiling way (see below). A Reasonable Amount of Trouble serves up stellar musicianship, courtesy of God's own fiddle player, Stuart Duncan; Leonard Cohen's bassist, Roscoe Beck; and Jerry Douglas on lap steel is back with Winchester for one last ride (and, oh, what a ride it is).

Jesse Winchester could sing doo-wop, gospel and honky tonk and make tunes written by others his own. Love Filling Station had "Stand By Me", and A Reasonable Amount of Doubt includes "Devil or Angel", "Rhythm of the Rain", and "Whispering Bells." Songs that someone may have heard a hundred times on the radio suddenly sound as if they were being played for the first time. There is an endearing quality in each note that he played and sung.

Photo: Jamie Martin/Associated Press
Winchester could break your heart, but he could also make you shake your booty. In 1977, he sang, "I'm still doing the rhumba, baby/So I'm still the man for you." This song went on to be covered by Jimmy Buffet, Little Feat and (my favorite version) Nicolette Larson with Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.

Over 40 years later, Winchester was still stepping out to remind us to "Never Forget to Boogie." In February, 2012, he performed at Blue Rock Artist Ranch & Studio, performing (in the video below) cuts from throughout his career, including:

Never Forget to Boogie
Bless Your Foolish Heart
Talk Memphis
Gentleman of Leisure
A Showman's Life
You Can't Stand Up Alone

Author and environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote, "I choose to listen to the river for awhile, thinking river thoughts, before joining the night and the stars."  Winchester knew a thing or two about waterways, having grown up in Memphis.  On his 1981 album, Talk Memphis, he sang "Come trail a finger in a river's flow/Come help me wonder where the soul will go."

From now on, whenever I listen to a river speak, I will think of Jesse Winchester, and when I listen to his music, I will be reminded of the waters coursing through our land.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next month.

Jesse Winchester, surrounded by musicians who made magic on his final two recording. Clockwise from top left: Jerry Douglas • Andy Leftwich • Jim Horn • Claire Lynch • Russ Barenberg • Mark McAnally • Mark Fain • Stuart Duncan
To learn more about Jesse Winchester and listen to his music, visit this artist's page at AllMusic.com