Jesse Winchester 1944-2014 Ain’t Nothing But a Breeze

Cashbox Canada Jesse Winchester April 18.jpg

Submitted by Don Graham

Even when you know an illness has someone in its grip and the outcome is inevitable, when the end finally arrives it’s hard to accept.  Jesse Winchester, suffering a relapse of his esophageal  cancer, has passed away.  Jesse had been battling his cancer since 2011 but was well enough to perform in 2012 and we were fortunate enough to catch one his shows at Hugh’s Room in Toronto.  Here is an excerpt of the review of that show.

“Hugh’s Room, packed house, Jesse Winchester, an acoustic guitar and great songs. That’s a combination for an entertaining evening that doesn’t come around often but when it does its magical. Hugh’s Room, which has to be THE best listening room in Toronto, great sound and sightlines, was a unique atmosphere with this performer on stage. The run of shows was three nights, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. I was fortunate to go the show with my good friend and guitarist Bob Cohen, who toured with Winchester years ago and knows him better than most. We went on the Sunday thinking it would be less crowded and give us a better opportunity to “spread out” and watch and listen. However Sunday night was also packed, not an empty seat in the house. Come show time the entire room got quiet and Jesse Winchester took to the stage armed with his gut stringed guitar, a stool and his catalogue of amazing songs. For the next hour and half, the sweet sound of memories and new and old tunes filled the quiet, respectful air in the room. This singer/songwriter had never sounded better (no small feat after coming back from  cancer of the esophagus last year) as he sang his best known songs Yankee Lady, Brand New Tennessee Waltz, Mississippi You’re on my Mind, Biloxi and Sham a Ling  Dong Ding as well as some brilliant new tunes, while in between songs entertaining the audience with stories and anecdotes. This was all delivered in his unmistakable soft southern drawl. You could hear a pin drop, literally, during the entire show, as Winchester sang and played  with an honest, smooth delivery that made the time fly by and made me want to go home and put my Jesse Winchester records on and  hear some more.”

Jesse Winchester LiveJesse Winchester LiveLooking back on that evening now I realize how fortunate I was to be there that night. To recall the magic of Jesse “live” I need only go back a recent memory and not a decade old one.

Jesse Winchester, was born and raised in the southern United States. To avoid the Vietnam War draft he moved to Canada in 1967. Jesse was an objector to  a war he couldn’t support and took the brave stance of moving north of the border to Canada which is where  he began his career as a solo artist. He became a Canadian citizen in 1973, gained amnesty in the U.S. in 1977 and resettled there in 2002. Jesse was a songwriter’s songwriter, a singer’s singer and a performer’s performer. Between 1970 and 2009, Winchester released 10 studio albums. None of them sold particularly well, they were used  by other artists as song catalogues and yielded such gems as “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” “Biloxi,” “Yankee Lady,” “A Showman’s Life,” “Talk Memphis,” “Sweet Little Shoe,” “Defying Gravity” and the Christmas standard, “Let’s Make a Baby King.”

Among the acts who recorded from Winchester’s catalogue were Reba McEntire, George Strait, Wynonna, Rosanne Cash, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Don Williams, Vince Gill, Ralph Stanley, Gary Allan, Anne Murray, the Mavericks, Ed Bruce, New Grass Revival and Emmylou Harris.

In 2012, country singer and songwriter Mac McAnally produced Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester, an album featuring covers of Winchester songs by the likes of James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Rodney  Crowell and others.

Musicians who worked with Jesse through the years all echoed the same sentiment. “He was a such a joy to work with that when the gig was over I found myself looking forward to the next one, working with Jesse was the dream gig,” said guitarist Bob Cohen who played alongside Jesse for 6 years or so.  “I heard from Jesse by email a little over a month ago in what was basically a goodbye message,” said Cohen. “He thanked me for the music, laughter and loyalty and said “See ya down the road kid.”

The general consensus is Jesse Winchester was a gentleman and a gentle man. He was loved by many and now grieved by even more, but grief is the cost of love.

Rest in peace Jesse,  it ain't 'Nothing But a Breeze’!