One of the best songwriters of the 1960s and early '70s, with an unassuming style that managed to sound like Fred Neil, J.J. Cale, Jim Croce, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and early Tom Waits by turns (and sometimes all at once), Jesse Winchester would have been as well known and regarded as any of these had history not swept him from Louisiana, where he was born, to Montreal, Canada, where he took up residence in exile (like thousands of other young men at the time) to avoid the Vietnam War. Winchester was working gigs as a lounge pianist when his draft notice came, and while he joined a couple of local bands after his flight to Canada, his life as a musician had been torn apart. Going solo, he began writing songs that were sparse, elegant, personal, and somehow also fascinatingly allusive and elusive, all filled with a kind of exhausted yearning for home, place, and identity. The Band's Robbie Robertson produced Winchester's self-titled debut album, Todd Rundgren engineered it, and the Band's Levon Helm played drums on it, but it was Winchester's brilliant songs and laconic, everyman vocals that made it work. And such songs! "Biloxi" is a sharply drawn impressionistic narrative that establishes place, time, and character, and is filled with enough longing to bring tears. The magnificent "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz" is stately, redemptive, and somehow mysterious all at once. Then there's "Skip Rope Song," an eerie lament about giving away the past for another, and the terrifying "Black Dog," which sounds like Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits in the studio with Daniel Lanois. Winchester couldn't tour behind the album when it came out in the States, though, and it kept him from getting the kind of audience and attention his talents deserved. A second album, 1972's Third Down, 110 to Go, was produced by Winchester himself, except for three holdover Todd Rundgren-produced tracks, and it featured more powerful songs like "Isn't That So?," a bright piece of Jim Croce-like pop grace, the jaunty and delightful "Full Moon," the rumba-funky "God's Own Jukebox" (complete with the guitar genius of Amos Garrett, a Detroit native who ended up in Canada for pretty much the same reasons as Winchester did), and the scary lullaby "Do La Lay," which ultimately ends up being oddly reassuring. Taken together, these two albums show a compelling and unique songwriter, graceful and intelligent, with a sharp eye for detail and melody. By all rights, Winchester should have had a huge audience for these albums. It was not to be. This set combines both albums on one disc. Bravo. Winchester was pardoned by Jimmy Carter in 1977.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett