I saw singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester perform on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota more than 20 years ago and he 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 only after the Carter amnesty, there was not a hint of politics in his performance.
Winchester died of cancer yesterday at the age of 69. Jon Pareles has an account of Winchester’s career in the New York Times obituary this morning. Bob Mehr takes an extended look in the Memphis Commercial Appeal obituary.
Winchester grew up in Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. He spoke with an endearing Southern accent that seems 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. 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.
As Winchester struggled with his first bout of cancer in 2011, fellow artists including James Taylor, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Allen Toussaint, Jimmy Buffett, Rosanne Cash and Lyle Lovett recorded the tribute album Quiet About It. Not too shabby.
Winchester had a dry sense of humor that he drew on for many of his songs. Interviewing musician Herb Pedersen this week, and knowing Winchester was close to death, I asked Herb about the manifestation of Winchester’s sense of humor in his songwriting. “My goodness,” Herb said, “he could be funny pulling up his socks.”
You can hear it in the title track to Winchester’s brilliant 1999 collection Gentleman of Leisure. You can also hear his ability to express deep feeling with economy and restraint.
The last song on that album is “I Wave Bye Bye” (video below). It was directed, I don’t have any doubt — I say with great authority and no knowledge — to his daughter, Alice. As a father of three daughters, I have felt it hit home with the force of revelation.
Let’s not wave bye bye before we take a look at Jesse in performance on Elvis Costello’s Sundance cable show.