It is absolutely worth your while to rediscover the recently passed Jesse Winchester, a writer of uncommon heart, wit and grace.
Born in 1944 in Bossier City, Louisiana and raised in Memphis and Mississippi, Winchester started playing guitar in high school and continued at Massachusetts’ Williams College. Shortly after graduating in 1966, he received a draft notice and, instead of reporting for Vietnam, boarded a plane for Montreal. He would become a Canadian citizen and stay there for thirty-five years despite the fact that President Carter granted amnesty to draft evaders in the seventies.
Winchester joined a Montreal band called Les Astronautes and began to write his own songs. Word got around and Robbie Robertson came to meet him, and agreed to produce his first album, Jesse Winchester, recorded in Toronto and released in 1970. Third Down, 110 to Go followed in 1972, then Learn to Love It in 1974, Let The Rough Side Drag in 1976. Be sure to revisit “Mississippi You’re On My Mind”, a 1974 love letter to the south from a young man very far from home.
Jesse released the incredible Nothing But a Breeze in 1977, the same year that Rolling Stone credited him with “the greatest voice of the decade”. That voice. Longing and hope and conscience all dipped in southern honey. Deep wisdom mixed with silly lust and sung in perfect pitch. A captivating, beautifully controlled yodel.
Winchester released four more albums, A Touch on the Rainy Side, Talk Memphis, Humour Me and Gentlemen of Leisure, before moving back to Memphis in 2002 for the love of a woman. He is remembered in Montreal as much for his Quebecois “ya’ll’s” as for his songs, rich in story, melody, rhythm and humor. He ultimately settled in Charlottesville, Virginia, and lived there with his wife until his death on April 11, 2014.
During his life Winchester’s persona evolved into a sort of dancing Memphis dandy, best demonstrated in 1999’s Gentlemen of Leisure, a completely original gem that cannot be described but must be experienced.
Jesse released Love Filling Station in 2009. In 2012, notable artists paid their respect to Jesse on a tribute album, Quiet About It, including Tex-centrics Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell and Lyle Lovett as well as James Taylor, Rosanne Cash and Costello. It is a testament to Winchester’s performing prowess that none of these giants improve even a whit on his originals.
Winchester’s last album, A Reasonable Amount of Trouble, was posthumously released. Remember Jesse in the way he would have wanted. Listen to “good music, slow and steady, and share it.”
Three things to know about Jesse Winchester: (1) he arrived in Canada with $300, knowing no one, (2) he met Robertson in the basement of an Ottawa monastery, and (3) Jesse formed the band the Rhythm Aces, which ultimately became the Amazing Rhythm Aces.