Jesse Winchester, the singer, had been talking for an hour and had smiled only once.
It might have been the weather, rain splashed on the window, the clouds were almost black.And it might have been the work - yesterday in Washington, New York the day before, Edmonton a month ago, always sleeping in motel rooms, eating motel food, the schedules, the sound checks, the draining, frantic sameness of the touring singer's life.
His eyes, though blue, are dark. His speech is sweet, polite, considered, his voice is full of Memphis, and his face is full of shadows. His spirit seems ingathered. He is not a lot of laughs.
Country is the label that best fits Jesse Winchester, though he long has lived in cities - Memphis, Munich, Montreal. The songs he writes touch old chords of memory. Their melodies are poignant, their harmonies familiar.
The sound of Jesse Winchester suggests not blues, but minstrels, lullabies and lutes. It does not have bluegrass steel, or the edgy whine of punk, or the formica blandness of the Now Sound of Today. And you couldn't call it rock.
He has a rawhide name, full of train robbers and rifles, and he has an outlaw's fame. He would not let the Army take him. In 1967, while others sang their protests, Jesse Winchester bought a ticket and moved to Canada.
"I like foreign places, I like the clean slates they provide." He has long been an outsider. Though the southland is his homeland, there is longing in his music. He went to Williams College in the Ivy League, and spent his junior year in Germany. When he fled to Canada he did not settle in Toronto, say, but in French-speaking Montreal.
Conventional wisdom has it that the pop music of our time in spirit All-American. The same cannot be said for all the pop musicians. England bred the Beatles, Rod Stewart and the Stones. Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, the guitarist Amos Garrett, Robbie Robertson of the Band, are Canadians all. The music of the United States, from which they took so much, now is in their debt.
There is in their music something cool and northern, something that is tied to the brain, not just the gut. For purposes of business, copyrights, and such, Winchester had organized a company, Hot Kitchen. "Have you ever watched," he asks in song, "a fire burn all night? And the ashes cool just as the sky turns light?" Few singers born in Louisiana have sung as well about the snow.
He says, "I hear the south in music. I hear the north as well. The north has a higher, more trebley sound. The accent is most often on the first and third the southern singers stress the second and the fourth. Southern music is more bottomy. The emphasis is on the bass."
When he speaks of the blues singers he admires - Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson - he adds, "I never heard of them, I never heard of Furry Lewis, until I came up north. In Memphis we'd listen to Ike and Tina Turner, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf. I didn't know anyone who'd listen to one guy with a guitar."
Though famous for his draft resistance, he does not sing of politics. Unlike Robertson or Garrett, Winchester is a soloist. There is aloneness in his music.
"When I moved to Canada I was into rhythm and blues, now I'm into country. I like Dallas Frazier (when he spells the name he says "zed" instead of "zee", Curly Putnam, Harian Howard. Those guys run up and down music row trying to get Conway Twitty to cover their songs. There is a lot of gold in the dress of Nashville, but that gold sure gleams."
Jesse Winchester does not write melodies and poems and then put them together. His songs arrive in phrases, the words from the beginning set into their tunes.
"I wouldn't write a song like 'Brand New Tennessee Waltz' today. 'Passonate violins,' Victorian stairs' - it's too wordy, too poetic. Songs should sound like speech, like supercharged conversation, with something very powerful underneath the talk. I want my songs to be obvious, clear."
He is no revolutionary, his music is conservative. "The limits have been tested, I'm not interested in that. Country music melodies tend to sound the same. They're not, but the old stuff still sound best. I want to inject new life into the old."
Though he studied classical piano for 10 years in Tennessee, it is his singing that he stresses. His bands don't overwhelm his voice. "The instruments," he says, "accompany the singing." The background instrumentals increase his aura of aloneness, the solitude he casts. "Yeah," says Jesse Winchester, "and soothe my giant ego."
At the thought of his ego he begins to laugh. His face opens, his eyes brighten. He was born in 1944. For the first time in an hour, he looks not old, but young.