Jesse Winchester’s songs are more widely known than his name, but the veteran folksinger’s out to change that with his first album in 10 years and a summer concert tour.
The man has penned hits for Emmylou Harris (“Songbird”), Reba McEntire (“You Remember Me”), the Weather Girls (“Well-a-Wiggy”), Chris Smither (“Talk Memphis”) and Joan Baez (“Brand New Tennessee Waltz”).
And Wynonna, who once flew Winchester down to Nashville to sing harmony on her version of his “Let’s Make a Baby King,” included his “That’s What Makes You Strong” (RealAudio excerpt) as a bonus track on her current album, New Day Dawning.
But when he plays the Telluride Festival on June 18 in Colorado, Winchester will be the one interpreting his songs. His set will include classics from his catalog and tunes from his Sugar Hill release Gentleman of Leisure.
“There was a time, a few years back, when I looked around and saw that I was making more money from writing songs for other people, and I was just tired,” he said from his home in the countryside near Montreal, before heading off for his summer of touring.
“I felt touring wasn’t worth the aggravation. But recently, I became single again and went through some personal changes coming out of that. Now, I’m having the time of my life performing.”
Once A Southerner, Always A Southerner
Though he’s lived in Canada since 1967, the sound of the South resonates through Winchester’s melodies and lyrics, from specific geographical references such as “Talk Memphis” to the R&B grooves on “Sweet Little Shoe,” (RealAudio excerpt), which is found on his current album.
He was born in Shreveport, La., and raised in Memphis, Tenn., but “I still consider myself a Southerner,” he said. “I like emotional things, romantic things, and I think that comes from being a Southerner.
“I still prefer Southern cooking, too.”
Winchester said that while he was growing up, he listened to the same things everybody else in his age group was listening to — R&B, country and gospel. “And I loved all of it,” he said.
He studied piano, too, and played organ at church, but he didn’t expect to find a career in music.
“At the beginning of every school year, my father would say, ’It’s fine for you to take music lessons, but I don’t want you ever to become a professional musician,’ ” Winchester recalled. “[Still,] I always sort of wanted to play guitar in an R&B band.”
First, a few major changes came his way. He went to college and studied philosophy in New England and Europe before returning to Memphis to consider his career direction. Then, in 1967, his draft notice came.
With the United States deeply involved in the Vietnam War, Winchester decided to move north rather than join the military.
“Montreal was the largest city in Canada then, and the second-largest French-speaking city in the world … I liked living with a different language, so that appealed to me,” he said, adding that his poor French turned out to be a handicap in his pursuit of a regular job.
“I was kind of forced to get a job in music, and one thing led to another,” he said.
Getting A Foot In The Door
After playing in several bar bands and touring Quebec, Ontario and the wilds of northern Canada, he went solo and scored a job at a coffeehouse.
“There were folk musicians playing there, and you were sort of expected to write your own songs,” he said.
With his knack for songwriting and his resonant voice, Winchester was soon headlining shows. Then, he was introduced to Robbie Robertson of The Band, who had just released their acclaimed debut album, Music From Big Pink.
Robertson was impressed with Winchester’s songs and offered to produce his first album. Drummer Levon Helm from The Band and Canadian guitarist David Rea worked on the recording, which was engineered by Todd Rundgren.
The self-titled disc, released on Bearsville Records in 1970 (and reissued in 1994), included such memorable cuts as “Biloxi” (RealAudio excerpt), “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” and his bittersweet take on love in “Yankee Lady” (RealAudio excerpt).
Winchester became a Canadian citizen in 1973, but he wasn’t able to tour in the United States until 1977, when former President Jimmy Carter issued an amnesty for draft evaders. Nonetheless, Winchester recorded impressive albums in the ’70s, including Third Down 110 to Go (1972) and A Touch on the Rainy Side (1978).
He had a top-40 hit with “Say What” in 1981, and covers of his songs began climbing the charts. “I’m Gonna Miss You Girl” became a top-10 country hit for Michael Martin Murphey, and “Rhumba Girl” went up the pop charts in a version by Nicollette Larsen.
Winchester’s songs also have been recorded by Mary Black, Peter Case, Elvis Costello, the Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings, Anne Murray, Tom Rush, Dan Seals and the Sweethearts of the Rodeo, among others.
A decade after releasing Humour Me on Sugar Hill in 1988, Winchester got in touch with label head Barry Poss, who connected him with Grammy-winning producer and Dobro player Jerry Douglas. The resulting project, Gentleman of Leisure, was recorded in Nashville.
“I had a wonderful time,” Winchester said. In fact, he said, “I don’t want to wait so long between doing records — I want to do another one soon.”
Correspondent Mikel Toombs contributed to this report.