When Jesse Winchester was growing up in Memphis in the late '50s, he and his friends all listened to local deejay Dewey Phillips, a friend of Elvis Presley who also served as their window on the local black music scene. "When Elvis went into the Army," Winchester recalls, "me and my friends all turned their attention to black music. We loved it -- it was raw, it was simple and it came from the heart.
"For us, Booker T. and the MGs were the ultimate. They were two black guys and two white guys, and we all felt that was the way it should be. That was Memphis. We all looked down on Nashville because it was so white."
So it is with no small measure of irony that Winchester finds himself, nearly 30 years later, traveling to Nashville to make his first album in six years. He plans to record a batch of his new songs live in a Nashville studio with a small band, and hopes that Sugar Hill Records will have the results in the stores by the end of the year. The arrangements will reflect the country music he so despised as a kid.
"I think an appreciation for country music is a sign of maturity," he says. "If rock is an adolescent music, country is the voice of an adult who's singing rather than bellowing. It's the difference between whispering in your lover's ear and screaming at her. Accepting country music also has a lot to do with accepting who you are and where you're from. As much as we love black music, we're not black -- we're white.
"For me it happened when I moved to Canada. I couldn't find any more black music on the radio, so I started listening to country, because it was the closest thing to rhythm and blues. Then when I started singing, people were always telling me I sounded country. It always annoyed me, because I wanted to sound like James Brown or Sam and Dave, but like I say, as you get older, you adjust."
Winchester moved to Montreal in 1967 to avoid the draft and the Vietnam War. He did so for moral reasons, and when he arrived in Canada he avoided the politically active draft-exile community. Instead he put down roots in Canada's frosty ground, and today the 43-year-old singer-songwriter, his wife and three children are permanent residents of Montreal.
To make a living, he began playing the piano in cafe's and started writing songs for the first time in his life. He soon found he hadn't severed his connections to Tennessee after all. The music that came out had the unmistakably southern feel of rhythm and blues and country. Even if he couldn't play the songs in his native land, he could bring it to life in his songs.
The Band's Robbie Robertson, a Canadian who had fallen in love with the South, liked the songs so much that he agreed to produce Winchester's first album in 1970. Robertson also got the young writer a contract with the legendary Albert Grossman, who also managed Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the Band.
"Albert Grossman is a book waiting to happen," Winchester says of the man who died last year. "He knew something about every possible subject. He knew people all over the world. Even today, if you get together any people who knew Albert, the conversation will turn to him within five minutes and it will stay there the rest of the night."
Winchester went on to make seven albums for Grossman's Bearsville Records with such producers as Todd Rundgren and Al Green's Willie Mitchell. Because he couldn't perform in the United States until President Carter's draft amnesty in 1977, Winchester is best known through the versions of his songs by Joan Baez, Jimmy Buffett, the Everly Brothers and Jonathan Edwards.
He still prefers to have other singers record his work to recording it himself. "I enjoy hearing other people doing my songs," he says. "That puts it at a remove where I can enjoy it. I've sold a couple of songs to Michael Johnson. I had Lynn Anderson's last single. Nashville seems to be my most natural hunting grounds -- my songs seem to fit more easily into a country framework."
Edwards, another American who lived in Canada for a long stretch of the '70s, has now invited his old friend to take part once again in his annual gathering of singer-songwriters at the Kennedy Center tomorrow. That suits Winchester just fine, for he firmly believes that the stage is a much better vehicle for his songs than the recording studio.
"None of my records give a real indication of where I'm at," he says. "They just don't come close to what they're supposed to be -- I have no use for any of them. For a long time I didn't even want to make another one because it has always been such an unpleasant procedure for me. The real tedious part is after the record is made, and you have to go out and promote it and tell interviewers how great it is."
So why is he making another one now? "I'd say the money is the biggest motive for it," he says. "There are all kinds of selfless motives I could mention, but why should you believe me?" Richard Harrington is on vacation. His On the Beat column will resume when he returns.