30 Days Out Exclusive Interview: Jesse Winchester
My first recollection of Jesse Winchester was seeing his picture on the back of a Billboard magazine in the 1970s. I had not thought about him since until seeing him last month on Spectacle: Elvis Costello with … on Sundance Channel. My loss. He brought the house down (and tears to eyes of Neko Case) with “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding,” a track from his latest release, Love Filling Station.
Winchester was born in Louisiana in 1944 and 22 years later, upon his graduation from college, he received his draft notice. He decided the Vietnam War was not for him and he split to Canada. As he explained it to Costello, “he hung around hippies and played coffee houses where you had to write your own songs to fit in.” In 1970, his music caught the ear of The Band’s Robbie Robertson and he produced Winchester’s critically acclaimed first record. He went on to release a number of records in the early 70s, and is best known for the tunes “Yankee Lady” and “Brand New Tennessee Waltz.” When Bob Dylan was asked who he thought, other than himself, was the greatest living songwriter, he said Jesse Winchester.
Songs by Jesse Winchester covered by other artists would fill a good-sized songbook. “Rhumba Man” was covered by Jimmy Buffett on his new album, and Winchester’s tunes have also been covered by Patti Page, Elvis Costello, Joan Baez, Anne Murray and Reba McEntire. On Love Filling Station, Jesse reclaims “Oh What A Thrill,” which was a hit for the Mavericks.
Winchester was nice enough to answer a few questions for us about his past, his present and his future:
30DaysOut: Tell us how you got your start in music? Were you influenced by the Memphis scene and its musicians?
JW: I seem to have been a musician from birth. I was very much influenced by Memphis music – gospel, blues, country. I loved the great radio station, WDIA, and also Dewey Phillips, the best disc jockey ever.
30DaysOut: Who were your influences growing up?
JW: The Mills Brothers, Jimmy Reed, Bobby Blue Bland, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and many, many others.
30DaysOut: How did deciding to skip military service affect you as a musician and writer?
JW: Living in Montreal exposed me to French music – I love the cabaret tradition of Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, etc.
30DaysOut: How did not being able to perform in the U.S. affect your career?
JW: Hard to say – I don’t know what lay down the road not taken.
30DaysOut: What was it like working with Robbie Robertson and members of the Band on your first record?
JW: Fun, exciting, daunting, and a little annoying to have to take direction.
30DaysOut: What is it like when you hear one of your songs performed by other artists? What’s your favorite cover of one of your songs?
JW: It’s fun. It’s hard to separate my aesthetic judgment from my ego. Ed Bruce did a great version of “Evil Angel”.
30DaysOut: Have you ever written a song with a cover artist in mind, or written a song on assignment? How do you approach doing a cover yourself, as with “Stand By Me” on the new album?
JW: Yes, I’ve written specifically for other people. It’s not my favorite thing to do. I cover songs I wish I’d written myself.
30DaysOut: You seem to be the perfect example of a guy who makes great music, but isn’t heard by a mass audience…what is your take on the music business today compared to when you were getting started?
30DaysOut: We did a series on the Warner Bros. “Loss Leaders” where you turned up a few times (from your stint on Bearsville) … is that kind of promotion for artists and music a thing of the past? Or do you find that the internet has offered a new opportunity?
JW: The Internet has been good for me. It’s the first time I’ve actually made money from records, as opposed to songwriting or performing.
30DaysOut: What is your songwriting process? Do you come up with lyrics and a story first, or does the music usually come first? What do you draw inspiration from?
JW: I don’t know where inspiration comes from. I just sit down and start playing until something comes. Usually the words and music come together.
30DaysOut: Your performance on Spectacle was outstanding…you made Neko Case cry. What was that experience like?
JW: It was fun meeting Elvis and Sheryl and Neko – I’d met Ron before. They’re great players and interesting people. Playing TV shows is pretty easy – you only play a couple of songs. There’s a lot of sitting around.
MP3: “It’s A Shame About Him” (from Love Filling Station)
“Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” by Jesse Winchester (Live on Spectacle)
“Yankee Lady” by Jesse Winchester (Live in Houston)
“Stand By Me” (from Love Filling Station)