Singer and songwriter Jesse Winchester has died at the age of 69, after a long battle with cancer. Winchester released his self-titled debut album in 1970, at a time when rock music was increasingly connected to the protest movement against the Vietnam War. Winchester’s country-flavored rock wasn’t especially political on the surface, but the war had definitely impacted his career: Winchester relocated to Montreal in 1967, upon receiving his draft notice.
Winchester’s debut was produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson, a Canadian with a thing for Southern folklore and Americana-style rock, who pitched in to help out an artist who seemed like the genuine article. Robertson and Levon Helm both made musical contributions, while its black-and-white cover photo of Winchester was highly reminiscent of the cover of The Band’s self-titled album, released the previous year. With such classic original songs such as “Yankee Lady” and “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” it received rave reviews.
Between 1972 and 1976, Winchester recorded three more albums while building up a backing group that would eventually form the core of the Amazing Rhythm Aces. (Winchester’s 1974 album Learn To Love It included the first recorded version of that band’s best-known song, “Third-Rate Romance.”) But without being able to tour behind them in the U.S., they received little attention in America. Fortunately, in 1977, the newly elected President Carter made good on his campaign pledge to grant amnesty to draft evaders who hadn’t deserted or taken citizenship elsewhere. Upon request from Winchester’s manager, Carter was persuaded to include Winchester in that amnesty—even though Winchester had technically become a Canadian citizen in 1973. Winchester made his belated live debut in the U. S. in Burlington, Vermont on April 21, 1977.
That performance may well have been the high point of his homecoming. The first albums that Winchester was able to tour behind in the States, Nothing But A Breeze (1977) and A Touch On The Rainy Side (1978), were rushed to market and not well received, critically or commercially. The long-in-the-making Talk Memphis (1981), produced by Memphis soul man Willie Mitchell, earned some radio play for the singles “Say What” and “Talk Memphis,” but they didn’t do well enough to save Winchester from being dropped by his label. He continued to perform and occasionally record, but Winchester’s name was increasingly better known as the author of songs performed by others. The American Society Of Composers, Authors, And Publishers gave Winchester its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.