Ask any American singer/songwriter to cite an influence and they’ll likely reference Jesse Winchester. Among the general public, however, Winchester’s songs have become more popular in the hands of other musicians than they have in his own. The list of artists who have covered his work reads like a who’s who of contemporary music, including Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Garcia, and Bonnie Raitt. Yet nothing resonates deeper than a song in the hand of its creator.
Perhaps the most career-defining moment for Winchester was his decision to relocate to Canada during the Vietnam War years. As a result, his album releases have been less frequent than his musical compatriots in the last three decades and his touring schedule less rigorous. Now back in the States, Winchester still forgoes elaborate tours in favor of special live appearances, and the Sings Like Hell series is at the top of his list.
Brett Leigh Dicks chatted with Winchester last week about the Sings Like Hell show on May 19.
You’ve released more than a dozen albums in more than 30 years. Are you always writing and recording? It’s just sort of the way I am, I suppose. My own records have never sold very well; they’ve always been very expensive, glorified demos. The bulk of my income has been from other people covering my songs. So that tends to be what I focus on. It gets to be a little discouraging working hard on a record and not seeing it sell very well.
What was it like to play that first show after returning from Canada? It was a very happy time for me on the one hand, to be back and visit my hometown and revisit childhood memories. On the other hand, it was a very unhappy time for me, as I really didn’t like the media attention. Oddly enough, it’s really important to get publicity in this business, and you really can’t get along without it. But the media attention I was getting was not because of the music, but because of the political situation I was in. I understand that. You make your bed and then you lie in it. Even so, it was very uncomfortable and it made me very unhappy during that period of my life.
You hail from Tennessee, which has a tremendous musical legacy. How have your roots influenced you career? I’m originally from Memphis, Tennessee. All through my life, when I’ve told people that, most people are aware that’s where Elvis is from. Although it’s completely undeserved, I’ve always enjoyed a sort of cachet from that fact. Accident of birth, I should call it. I don’t think I deserve it, but there it is. And I had that in Europe, too.
As a songwriter, what are your goals? Simplicity, clarity, catchiness, good melody, and a good beat; you know, all the things that go into a good pop song. Most of my songs have been aimed in that direction-simple and commercial-in a good way.
Outside your own work, what are some musical experiences that have resonated with you? I remember going to see Johnny Cash play and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much charisma walk onto a stage in my life. Literally, from just his walking onto the stage, my mind froze. He really was a sort of Hercules, or something like a demigod.
Speaking of stage presence, I was at a festival recently and it seemed that everything emanating from the stage was driven by force and volume. Do you think subtlety is a musical art form in decline? Yes, I do. It stems from insecurity and fear. People are afraid if they get turned down or use any kind of nuance then people will realize the emperor has no clothes.
With music becoming more elaborate on both ends of the emotional spectrum, would you agree that the middle ground is becoming a little thinner? You’re absolutely right. Go back to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. Nobody was playing loud. Rock ‘n’ roll had curved edges, if you will. There was a feminine sort of touch to it. Now it’s all about frightening you and depressing you and making you wonder about what these people do in bed with each other. All that fun and joy and gentleness is gone and that’s a terrible thing to lose.
That’s why I am so excited you’ll be bringing that back to Santa Barbara in a few weeks. Ohhh : very nice segue.