A Showman's Life 

Evanescent singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester resurfaces for yet another worthy cause

Evanescent singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester resurfaces for yet another worthy cause

Open Jesse Winchester's Web site, and what flashes onscreen isn't a glossy publicity photo or a list of upcoming concert dates. In fact, the opening page offers no news or information about the veteran singer-songwriter at all. Instead, what he presents is a philosophical treatise on love.

How perfect. Since his eponymous 1971 debut, Winchester has concentrated on exploring the vagaries of relationships and the odd yet endearing way people endure. So, given a different forum, why not tackle these ideas in an essay?

Presented as a Q&A, Winchester's comments expand and mirror the style of many of his songs—sometimes witty, sometimes poignant, often breezy, but always insightful. He admits that love, in all its delicious or devastating possibilities, remains a mystery—and that's how he believes it should be. "If we get too smart about love," he writes, "the race will die out."

As he usually does, Winchester considers the bigger picture. Just why are we so strange and sentimental about something so ephemeral? It's because, "We believe love is precious in its own right," he writes, like the barroom philosopher, explaining that love "lets us accept absurdity without our minds interfering, demanding logic and raising doubts."

Listen to Winchester's songs, and it's clear he doesn't think people are in danger of extinction anytime soon. Love gets us up in the morning, his lyrics say, but it just as often sends us to bed in tears at night. In songs that have more in common with Johnny Mercer than Bob Dylan, Winchester explicates the absurd, illogical and undeniably essential need we all have to chase and embrace love every chance we get.

Indeed, few major American songwriters have remained as consistent in sound and subject as Winchester has over the last three-and-a-half decades. His first album, released when he was 26 years old, opened with the randy "Payday," a sophisticated acoustic blues about a young man on the make on a Friday night with plans to get drunk and score. It was balanced by the wistfully romantic "That's a Touch I Like," about a man seduced by his new lover's style, from the smell of her skin and the shape of her eyes to the way she ties the ribbon in her hair.

On his most recent studio album, 1999's Gentleman of Leisure, released when he was 54, Winchester again opens with a song about a guy on the town, drink in hand, only this time he's trying to persuade his lover to leave her home and join him for a night of carousing and romance. He's older, quite obviously, and more refined—but that doesn't make him any less interested in what interested him in his youth. "Oh, I love you little darlin'," he sings, "but I love Club Manhattan too."

These days Winchester leans more on the philosophical side, where love isn't a pursuit or a physical activity as much as it is a comfortable place to prove your mettle. In the outstanding "That's What Makes You Strong," set to the kind of slow gospel-blues reminiscent of ballads by B.B. King or Otis Redding, he suggests that love means acknowledging that you need someone else to be happy. And that you have to trust them even if experience tells you that trust might be broken.

It's the sage in Winchester, the willingness to drop irony and cynicism and cast his vote for the romantic and the dreamer, that makes him strong—and singular. Too crisp and too much of a realist to be maudlin, he's nonetheless willing to play the sentimental fool. A keen observer, Winchester dispatches his philosophical reports with a hipster's wit, an intellectual's insights and a gentleman's reserve. He sets it all to spare, acoustic melodies that rely heavily on folk and R&B, much like the music of his most obvious acolyte, Lyle Lovett.

For all his first-person depictions of rakishness—from a jaunty blues about running out of pot in "Twigs & Seeds," to the rambler bidding another lover goodbye in "Freewheeler"—Winchester's best work not only deals with love, but in requiems for a South he left behind that no longer exists. For a good reason, too: Winchester's reputation, and his lack of it, are wrapped up in his 1967 decision to become a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and to move from Memphis to Canada rather than going to prison.

With the release of his first album, which was produced by Robbie Robertson of The Band, Winchester instantly became rock's highest-profile draft dodger. His status drew loads of publicity in the anti-establishment rock press, but it also kept him from touring his home country. So he gained notoriety, but in an age when live music prevailed, he couldn't connect with fans in person.

Still, several of his songs became underground FM staples, including "Brand New Tennessee Waltz," "Yankee Lady," "My Songbird" and "Rhumba Man." His work was often covered by other performers, from Stoney Edwards' making "Mississippi, You're on My Mind" a country hit to Emmylou Harris turning "Defying Gravity" and "Thanks to You" into mainstays of her live shows. (His popularity among other singers remains today, from Buddy Miller recording his "A Showman's Life" to Wynonna dipping into his catalog for "Let's Make a Baby King" and "That's What Makes You Strong.")

When Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to Vietnam objectors in 1977, Winchester finally got to tour, and people in the U.S. got to see what they'd been missing—an elegant performer whose graceful ease onstage pulled listeners in and held their attention. Live, Winchester's melodic guitar comes across more clearly, as do his laid-back yet engaging turns of phrase. Nothin' but a Breeze, the album he released upon his return to touring, remains his biggest seller alongside a greatest-hits collection released in the late '80s.

Ever inscrutable, Winchester slowed down almost as soon as he gained access to the country he'd left behind a decade earlier. There's a reason he called his most recent studio album Gentleman of Leisure; he's only released four studio albums since 1978.

Yet as 2001's Live From Mountain Stage, which captures a solo performance, attests, he's as compelling and as cagey as ever. He's mellowed with time, but he wears it well—just as a gentleman should.


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