Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, who influenced a broad swath of country and pop recording artists, died Friday morning (April 11) at his home in Charlottesville, Va., at age 69. His family announced his death in a message on his Facebook page. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2011.
Born James Ridout Winchester on May 17, 1944, in Bossier City, La., he grew up on farms in Mississippi and later in the city of Memphis.
After receiving his draft notice in 1967 and faced with the prospect of being sent to fight in Vietnam, he fled to Montreal. There he met Robbie Robertson of The Band, who produced his first album, Jesse Winchester in 1970, and Todd Rundgren, who engineered it.
Unable to tour in the U.S. until President Jimmy Carter came into office in 1976 and extended amnesty to draft evaders, Winchester supported himself in Canada primarily through extended club gigs and income from publishing royalties.
Following the amnesty, he played his first American show in Vermont in 1977 and continued to perform occasionally in the States. He did not return to live in the U.S., however, until 2002 after he had married his second wife.
Dissatisfied with the city schools and the local government in Memphis, where they initially lived, they eventually settled in Charlottesville, Va., to be near his wife’s family.
Between 1970 and 2009, Winchester released 10 studio albums. While none of them sold particularly well, they were mined for songs by other artists 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 country acts who recorded from Winchester’s catalog 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, Gill, Lovett, Crowell and others.
“I’ve been lucky enough that my style suits Nashville,” Winchester told a radio interviewer in 2006, the year before ASCAP, the performance rights organization, presented him a lifetime achievement award.
“I don’t think I’m a real country musician or person — although I’d like to be,” he continued. “That’s the music I listen to and the music I love with all my heart.”
He told the interviewer that a song of his that Reba McEntire cut — he didn’t name it — had probably made him the most money and that Ed Bruce’s recording of his “Evil Angel” was his favorite one musically.
“He just nailed that song!” Winchester marveled.
(The McEntire cut Winchester alluded to may have been “You Remember Me” on her triple-platinumRumor Has It album.)
On his 2009 Love Filling Station collection, Winchester covered Carl Smith‘s 1954 hit “Loose Talk” and the gospel and bluegrass standard “Far Side Banks of Jordan.”
Reactions from the music community to Winchester’s death on Facebook pages have been widespread and heartfelt.
“What a cool dude, a gentle soul and deep, deep musical talent,” wrote Dave Pomeroy, who played on Winchester’s Humour Me album. Pomeroy noted he had pitched Winchester’s “If I Were Free” to Don Williams, who, 15 years later, recorded it on his current album, Reflections, and that Winchester had sung harmony on it.
“What a huge loss,” said songwriter Gretchen Peters (“Independence Day”). “Some of the sweetest playing, singing and writing ever.”
Janis Ian was even more emphatic on her Facebook lament: “RIP Jesse Winchester. As underrated a singer as Chet Baker. As underrated a guitarist as Willie Nelson. A man who held the audience in the palm of his hand without moving an inch. One of the best songwriters on earth.
Despite his popularity as a composer, Winchester has not been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame or the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, nor has he won any Grammys.