Remembering Singer Songwriter Jesse Winchester

Jesse Winchester performing at the Butterfly Festival in Gainesville in 2007

Editor’s note:  It’s been just a little more than a year since the Memphis-bred songwriter Jesse Winchester died from cancer. Since that time a variety of artists have released a tribute album to the beloved songwriter called “Quiet About It: Tribute to Jesse Winchester.” The album includes such artists as Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor, Vince Gill, Elvis Costello, Roseanne Cash, Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams to name a few.

I personally fell in love with Jesse’s music long before I ever had the opportunity to interview him just before the 2007 Butterfly Festival in Gainesville.  It was such a memorable interview for me as Jesse truly opened up about growing up in Mississippi and his early musical influences in Memphis.  Below you can listen to the one-hour radio special that was a result of that interview, including many of his most popular songs. The program re-aired in 2009 just before the Gamble Rogers Festival in St. Augustine where Jesse also performed.

In 2009, Jesse Winchester experienced a career renaissance.  He gave several concerts and released the  crtically acclaimed album, “Love Filling Station.”  He also was a guest on the Elvis Costello television show, “Spectacle.”  Elvis Costello remembers how the audience and the other performers on the program were moved to tears by Jesse’s performance.

Just at the height of his comeback Jesse was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2011.  It was during his recovery from the first diagnosis of cancer that his fellow friends and artists decided to record the tribute album to show their love and support.    He eventually received a clean bill of health and went back to performing and finished a new album called, “A Reasonable Amount of Trouble.”  Sadly, in February of 2014, he was diagnosed with inoperable bladder cancer and he spent his final days at home under hospice care.  Below is a live performance of Jesse singing one of the more poignant songs from that album, “Just So Much The Lord Can Do,” at the Bow Valley Music Club in Calgary, AB on March 23rd, 2013

Original Story posted April 11, 2014

Singer/songwriter jesse Winchester died Friday morning at his Charlottesville, Va., home. Winchester had been suffering from cancer.  He was 69.

Winchester’s music blended folk, country and blues.  Some of his best known songs included Say What, The Brand New Tennessee Waltz, Yankee Lady, Gentleman of Leisure, Just Like New, That’s What Makes You Strong, My Songbird, Just ‘Cause I’m In Love With You, You Remember Me, Defying Gravity, Little Glass of Wine and Mississippi You’re on My Mind, among many others.  

Many of his songs were covered by such popular artists as Wynonna Judd, Bonnie Raitt, Reba McEntire, Emmylou Harris, the Everly Brothers, Joan Baez, Jimmy Buffett, Claire Lynch, Patti Page, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Nicolette Larson and others.

Winchester was born in Louisiana but grew up on farms in Mississippi and also lived in Memphis.  When he received his draft notice in 1967 he fled to Canada to avoid being sent to fight in Vietnam.  In Montreal he met Robbie Robertson of The Band, who produced his first album, Jesse Winchester in 1970.  He received amnesty along with other draft evaders from President Jimmy Carter in 1976.  Winchester did not return to live in the U.S., however, until 2002 after he had married his second wife.

Last fall, artists including James Taylor, Buffett, Elvis Costello, Lyle Lovett, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams and Vince Gill recorded his songs for a tribute album called Quiet About It.  Before his death, he had completed a new album, A Reasonable Amount of Trouble, with producer Mac McAnally. That album is expected to be released later this year.

In October of 2007 Jesse Winchester performed at the Butterfly Festival in Gainesville.  In advance of the concert he talked with Donna Green-Townsend and was featured in an hour long special.  In the interview he talks about his early years in Missisippi and Memphis, the inspiration for many of his songs and his thoughts about the music industry today.  The special was rebroadcast on WUFT prior to Winchester’s performance at the 2009 Gamble Rogers Festival in St. Augustine.  You can hear that special below:

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 (editor’s personal note: As a young reporter in Kansas I conducted interviews with all of the musicians, songwriters and top contestants at the Walnut Valley Festival for a 26-part national music series of programs in both 1981 and again in 1982.  It was during one of those years that I first became acquainted with Jesse Winchester when I heard another singer, Cathy Barton, sing one of his songs, “Mississippi You’re On My Mind.”  Jesse Winchester wasn’t there, but I fell in love with the song.  I’ve been singing it for more than 25 years.  That’s how many years it took to finally meet the man who wrote the song when he performed at the 2007 Butterfly Festival in Gainesville (see picture below).  As you can see from my smile, it was indeed a highlight for me.  He had the most gentle spirit.  I remember watching him perform that day with just his guitar and looking around seeing tears running down the faces of grown men in the audience during his song, “Little Glass of Wine.”  He had that kind of power.  RIP Jesse.)

Jesse Winchester with Donna Green-Townsend in 2007
Jesse Winchester performing at the Butterfly Festival in Gainesville in 2007