I saw singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester perform on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota more than 25 years ago and he just bowled me over. There couldn’t have been more than a hundred people in the audience. Accompanying himself on guitar, he turned in a beautiful performance concluding with “Yankee Lady.” Although Winchester had famously evaded the draft by decamping to Canada in 1967, returning to perform only after the Carter amnesty, there was not a hint of politics in his performance.
Winchester died of cancer in April 2014. Having grown up in Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, he spoke with an ingratiating Southern accent that seemed to me, in Winchester’s case, how American English should be spoken. You can hear all the crosscurrents of American popular music in his songwriting and in his singing. Country, blues, rock, soul, and gospel — they’re all there.
Winchester’s songwriting was appreciated by fellow artists including Wynonna Judd, Reba McEntire, Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Buffett and many others, as one can infer from the 2012 tribute album Quiet About It. Wynonna recorded Winchester’s gospel-tinged declaration of faith — “Let’s Make A Baby King” — on her hit-filled disc Tell Me Why. Wynonna’s version of Winchester’s song reached number 61 on the country chart based on unsolicited airplay.
Winchester had a dry sense of humor and hard-won wisdom that he drew on for many of his songs. You can hear both in a song like “Evil Angel.” The song is off his his fine 1999 album Gentleman of Leisure, recorded in Nashville and produced by Jerry Douglas. I haven’t listened to the song in a long while, but it has been going around in my head this morning like a spirit summoned from the vasty deep. I thought some readers unfamiliar with Winchester’s work might enjoy it if the thinking behind his Canadian interlude can be put to one side. Listening can’t hurt. It might even be good for what ails you.