Friday, October 5, 2012

Every Inch the Southern Gentleman: Quiet About It – A Tribute Album to Jesse Winchester

When I first heard about Jesse Winchester, back in the early ‘70s, his first album had not yet been released. Rumours flew that it was Bob Dylan recording under another name. It was probably down to the fact that he was managed by Albert Grossman (Dylan’s long-time manager), and was connected to The Band: Robbie Robertson produced his eponymously named first album. All it took was a look at the cover photo, and a listen, to know this was somebody new. Levon Helm played mandolin and drums on a track or two, the great unsung guitarist David Rea was present, but it was truly a songwriter’s record. I loved that first album, so much so that I have bought three or four copies of it over the years.

A year and a half ago Jesse was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. His friends decided to create the tribute album, Quiet About It, for him. He has some major friends. They appear here at their own expense. That’s right; they paid for their own sessions. Elvis Costello, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett and more. The album was released on Buffett’s Mailboat Records label. Jesse survived the treatments; he’s cancer free, but he moves a bit slower these days. After a recent concert I spoke with him. He was seated on a big old couch, out of puff, but every inch the Southern gentleman. The songs display the same generosity of spirit he showed that night. He spoke with everyone who had something to say, and signed CDs and LPs for 30 minutes. He deserved a tribute.

The album starts as his first album did with “Payday.” Gone is the rock & roll, and in its place is the finely textured finger-style guitar of James Taylor. It could be a new Taylor song, but the melody and lyrics are still Winchester’s own. This is followed by Rosanne Cash’s take on “Biloxi.” Her husband, John Leventhal, provided the arrangement which doesn’t stray too far from Jesse’s original, but allows room for Leventhal’s own guitar work and a bed of horns to set up Rosanne’s crisp vocals.

It’s a small step to 1999’s Gentleman of Leisure album for Jimmy Buffett’s rollicking rendition of the title track. Leisure time is different for a parrothead than a Mississippi gent. Allen Toussaint covers the closer from that album, “I Wave Bye Bye”, accompanied by producer Mac McAnally. (This is a touching song that Jesse closes his concerts with.) It’s McAnally on nylon string guitar with Toussaint’s gentle voice and soft touch on the piano keys. Beautiful.

There’s really not a bad track on this collection. Vince Gill’s take on “Talk Memphis” could be a track from his most recent album. It rocks. Gill appears a couple tracks later joining buddies Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris for “Dangerous Fun.” It is a tribute to Winchester’s songwriting that each of these artists is able to so totally make these songs their own without overwhelming what Winchester created. Listening to Lucinda Williams’ rendition of “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind” you’d swear it was one of hers. Little Feat bring along Sam Bush for a sizzling version of “Rhumba Man.” Producer McAnally’s tender “Defying Gravity” hails from 1974’s Learn to Love It, and Lyle Lovett’s “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” is from that first album. Both these versions are faithful to the originals, but take on the character of the artists playing them.

Elvis Costello closes things with a solo rendering of the tribute album’s title cut, “Quiet About It.” He plays ukulele, guitar, and everything else. He recorded at two different studios, but the song is seamless. I remember Costello had featured Winchester on an episode of his now-cancelled interview show, Spectacle, and Jesse sang a new song about the impact music can have on people:

The boys were singing shing-a-ling
The summer night we met
You were tan and seventeen
O how could I forget
When every star from near and far
Was watching from above
Watching two teenagers fall in love

The way we danced was not a dance
But more a long embrace
We held on to each other and
We floated there in space
And I was shy to kiss you while
The whole wide world could see
So shing-a-ling said everything for me

His performance brought Elvis and guest Neko Case to tears. I felt a tear in my own eye watching the show on TV. It’s just the way Jesse Winchester writes. He tells stories that are universally accessible. There is no new take of “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” on the tribute album. Jesse had already recorded the perfect take. For years he has been making a major impact, but being quiet about it.  His friends’ pay tribute by making a little noise on this well-deserved collection.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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