Elizabeth Cook and Jesse Winchester are Southern charmers whose finesse can't conceal steel backbone and whose grace doesn't prevent them from getting their hands dirty. Coming from different parts of the South, these singers have interpreted country, soul and rock 'n' roll in interesting and idiosyncratic ways. Yet they share a very specific attitude toward the past that marks them as from a region famously obsessed with it. For Winchester and Cook, history is always in the air, and no amount of courtly lyricism or brash attitude can prevent the passage of time.
A Louisiana native raised in Memphis, Winchester pulled off one of the greatest debuts in rock 'n' roll history, 1970's Jesse Winchester. Having moved to Montreal in order to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War, Winchester began writing songs and playing in various Canadian bands, and his debut was the callow American cousin to John Cale's spooky and slightly stoned Vintage Violence, released the same year. With scruffy guitar courtesy of producer Robbie Robertson, Jesse Winchester moved effortlessly from lyricism to carnal celebration and immediately made Winchester's reputation.
His early songs remain among his most indelible and frequently covered. "Biloxi" was a beautiful piece of fogged-in production, complete with strings and piano. "He sees creatures from a dream on the water / And the sun will set from off towards New Orleans," Winchester sang. "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz" was an expatriate's rueful self-examination, while "Yankee Lady" amounted to a conflicted idyll that found Winchester enjoying the love of an understanding woman—and her apple cider—in a faraway land.
It could be that Winchester never matched his first record's intensity, but that may be nothing more than a critical commonplace that ignores his true talent. There's a very sly and ever-so-slightly Latinate temperament to Winchester's songs. Stoney Edwards could do a brilliant cover of Winchester's "Mississippi You're on My Mind" (and take it into the country charts in 1975), but Winchester sang everything with a soulful edge that took its time and cut where it wanted to cut. Anyway, he made good records: 1977's underrated Nothing But a Breeze is a sweet, funky, civilized delight.
He's still making fine music, although not as frequently as his admirers would like. (Pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, Winchester moved back to Memphis for a couple of years before settling in Virginia.) He cut his new Love Filling Station in Nashville with a crack band that includes string wizard Russ Barenberg and singer Claire Lynch. His voice is as entrancing as ever, and he proves a sharp observer of Southern life on the pained, compassionate "It's a Shame About Him." Love Filling Station is a first-rate piece of work, and musical conservatism at its most compelling.
Meanwhile, Cook is another conservative whose Florida upbringing and Nashville career have combined in fascinating ways. Cook grew up singing country music in a somewhat hardscrabble environment, and moved to Nashville in 1996. She worked outside of music and eventually signed the usual publishing deal, releasing an intelligent major-label record, Hey Y'all, that she has described as an experiment. (The record was essentially recorded live in the studio.) Caught between the incipient Americana crowd and a country audience who perhaps didn't share her idea of how to return to the basics, Cook rethought her approach.
The result was 2007's delightful Balls, a slice of funny, smart country-style feminism that was also sexy and rocked out like nobody's business. Rodney Crowell produced the collection in a few days with a band that comprised super-guitarists Kenny Vaughan, Richard Bennett and Tim Carroll. A modern country record with across-the-board appeal, Balls included the hilarious "Times Are Tough in Rock 'n' Roll" and the deadly serious "Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman," a masterpiece of the phrasemaker's art and a classic country song for any era.
Like Winchester, Cook deserves a bigger audience, but it's tough to be a conservative these days. Still, these artists persist in their folly, which is a very Southern characteristic—and one that we can only hope will never fade away.
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