Covered In Folk: Jesse Winchester (1944-2014)
(with Roseanne Cash, Chris Smither, Mark Erelli, The McGarrigles +8 more!)
I started this entry towards the end of March, an early thaw that revealed a fertile earth ready for Spring even as insanity reigned in my personal life, and many drafts went unfinished. Since then, southern-born musician and songwriter Jesse Winchester has succumbed to the bladder cancer that plagued him for the better half of a decade – but the deceptively simple, direct lyrics and tunes that brought him a modicum of fame and no small counterpart of peer recognition through a long and storied career linger in the air, soothing mind and body as the world slows down to summer heat.
I first wrote about Winchester’s work over at Star Maker Machine back in 2009. Today we take the more comprehensive approach with a long-overdue Covered In Folk feature in tribute to Winchester’s songbook, featuring coverage from a company of contemporaries, including Emmylou Harris, Chris Smither, Pierce Pettis and more.
The musician’s musician, the singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter: even as we overuse such terms through our criticism and praise, it remains both trope and truism that some of the best artists make their name through the works of others. And although he produced and released his songbook almost entirely through his own performances, Jesse Winchester is one of those artists whose name is all over the liner notes of his generation. His work has been recorded and celebrated by Tom Rush, Emmylou Harris (x2), Lyle Lovett, The Everly Brothers, Jimmy Buffett (x3), Elvis Costello, Little Feat, Wilson Pickett, and a host of well-known Country artists; many of those same stars, plus James Taylor, Lucinda Williams, Allen Toussaint and more, came together in 2012 for a tribute album after the gentle interpreter of the human condition fell ill with cancer.
Winchester deserves the attention. In his own voice, he was a contemporary polymath of genre, with folk and blues elements that cross boundaries even as they dig deep into the soul. Rolling Stone named him The Greatest Voice of the Decade after a 1977 performance that marked a triumphant return to the US after a draft-dodging decade in Quebec.
And although the bulk of his work dates back to the seventies, Winchester continued to write and record throughout his life, albeit sparingly, and in a career ever hampered by a reluctance to play the popstar game. His 2009 appearance on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle, where he performed Sham-A-Ling-Ding-Dong – a song that American Songwriter aptly called “an ode to both the triumph of true love over time and to the profundity of nonsensical doo-wop lyrics, all delivered by Winchester in a fragile croon that transmits all of the deep emotions hiding between the lines” – is a stunning example of a true master at the end of a too-short career, in a performance that brought Neko Case – and me – to tears.
What makes a musician’s influence so strong that his work affects his peers so well? Mostly, the ability to put into words those universal sentiments that songwriters have long struggled to make. Winchester’s work is often thick with nostalgia, and rich with first person sentiment, but it is, in the end, stunning in its simplicity, with plain lines bare and carefully constructed, pitch-perfect hidden depths that shimmer under seemingly straightforward lyrics. Listen, as his songs shine through the voices that celebrate him – from Mark Erelli’s tender folk lullaby to Chris Smithers’ stomping, driving blues, Emmylou’s inimitable balladry, and the countrygrass sounds of New Grass Revival.
COVERED IN FOLK: JESSE WINCHESTER [zip!]