by Mike McCormick
A showman’s life,
Is a smokey bar,
And the fevered chase,
Of a tiny star,
from “A Showman’s Life” Jesse Winchester.
Jesse Winchester remained a Southern gentleman, even as he spent a large part of his life in Canada. His death last April spawned a wide range of tributes for his unique and passionate songwriting. A special concert will be taking place on February 28th at the Neat Cafe in Burnstown.
Jesse Winchester was born in Louisiana and raised in Memphis. He had already begun playing music when he received his draft notice in 1967. Objecting to the war, in protest he moved to Montreal where he began a new life with nothing but an electric guitar and $300. He began writing songs and was able to release his first album, “Jesse Winchester” in 1970 with the Band’s Robbie Robertson acting as producer. This and subsequent releases garnered much critical acclaim but limited commercial success a pattern that continued even after he was allowed to re-enter the U.S. in 1977.
“I grew up with a father who was in music, rather than a father who was a musician,” says Marcus Winchester, Jesse’s son, a former Arnprior resident who will be part of the Neat concert. By the late 80’s Jesse had become disenfranchised with live performance and began an 11 year hiatus, making a living writing songs for others. They moved to a cabin in the Eastern Townships of Quebec decked out with a home recording studio. “Dad was a bit of a geek” says Marcus, “…who built his own computers and sequencers and shared his knowledge online.” Jesse laboured extensively over his recordings and at times had trouble letting go of his music. Still he was able to have his songs covered regularly by artists like Emmylou Harris, Wynonna, Jerry Jeff Walker and George Strait. A decade later he returned to live performance and Marcus was able to accompany him on some of these tours and be able to note his “mild celebrity.”
Jesse has a wide range of songwriting styles. Although many of his best loved songs are heart wrenching ballads like “I Wave Bye Bye” or “If I Were Free”, he also shows his roots in Gospel and rock in songs like “Midnight Bus” or “I’m Looking for a Miracle”. What resonates throughout his catalogue is the economy of the lyrics, the beauty of the melodies, and a sadness often disguised by wit.
In the last stages of his life he garnered even more acclaim from his peers. He appeared on Elvis Costello’s television show “Spectacle” and when he got his first cancer diagnosis; a tribute album titled “Quiet About It” was recorded featuring James Taylor, Lyle Lovett, Rosanne Cash and others. His final recording, “A Reasonable Amount of Trouble” received 2 Grammy nominations. Marcus says his Dad was very touched by the response from his peers.
Besides Marcus, the show at the Neat Cafe will feature four other noted area songwriter/performers; all veterans of the Schoolhouse Stage. Anders Drerup, who has recently moved to Burnstown was the lead in Grievous Angel, the story of Gram Parsons, as well as performing with the Claytones. Lynn Miles of Ottawa is one of Canada’s most acclaimed songwriters with tunes such as “Black Flowers” and “Hockey Night in Canada”. James Keelaghan resides in Perth and is a Juno award winner for his album My Skies. His songs often deal with historical events and real life stories, put into a unique form showing his love of folk and Celtic traditions. Mike McCormick is a nuisance at the Neat; he’s there every month as the host of “Soundcheck”, he’s performed several times with his band the Arrogant Worms and he likes their cappuccino.
It’s a reflection of the power of Jesse Winchester’s songwriting that so many of the most poignant tributes are from fellow songwriters. Elvis Costello, who was a fan from an early age, writes a particularly stirring one on his website closing with, “Jesse’s lessons of economy and brevity in song and grace, modesty and forbearance in life are not always examples that I have been able to apply to my own experience but his songs and our brief but valued acquaintance will travel with me always. “