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Jesse Winchester, Musician And Muse To Icons, Dies At 69

Apr 11, 2014
Originally published on April 11, 2014 7:47 pm

Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, who made a name for himself in the 1970s, and counted among his fans everyone from Bob Dylan to Jimmy Buffett, died this morning at his home in Charlottesville, Va., following a battle with cancer. He was 69 years old.

Winchester was born in Louisiana and grew up on a farm in Memphis, Tenn. After college he planned to become a lawyer. In 1967, however, he got his draft notice. Instead of going to war in Vietnam, he fled to Canada.

In Montreal, Winchester, who played guitar and listened to R&B and doo-wop, began writing music and singing, always looking back to his roots in the American South.

In exile, Winchester released his first album, produced by Robbie Robertson of The Band. Music critics hailed him as the next Dylan, but he was not able to perform in the U.S. because he was labeled a draft dodger.

He told NPR in 1986 that he was always somewhat ambivalent about performing anyway.

"I have more a writer's personality than I do a performer's personality," Winchester said. "I like to be by myself and that kind of thing. You have to love being onstage and preening and prancing and posing. That's kept me from being a real big star. This is above and beyond any limitations my talent might have, and in that respect, we'd have to blame God, which I'd be more than happy to do."

"From just a pure visceral level, his voice was gentle and beautiful and powerful," says Memphis music critic Bob Mehr, who considered Winchester very much a Southern writer. "There was a kind of nostalgic quality to what he wrote, but also a kind of presence. Rodney Crowell, who was a friend and admirer of his, said Jesse's songs combined the gravity of William Faulker and the levity of Flannery O'Conner. There was a kind of Southernness, a humor and wistfulness, all the sort of great elements of what we consider Southern writing in his work."

Winchester's songs were revered and recorded by the likes of by Wilson Pickett, The Everly Brothers, Joan Baez and Dylan. He told NPR that when he finally moved back to the U.S., he performed in hockey rinks and arenas, but he preferred to have others perform his music.

"I'd rather have someone else be pop star," said Winchester. "My work in life is very happy, but it's not a barn-burning kind of thing. It's low-key."

His music enjoyed a revival in more recent years. When Winchester was first diagnosed with cancer, Jimmy Buffett put together a tribute album for him. In one of his last performances on TV, he sang a soulful rendition of "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding," his tribute to the old doo-wop songs he loved.

Winchester brought the audience and the show's host, Elvis Costello, to tears.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester died this morning. The 69-year-old had been battling cancer. He's known for his '70s songs like the "Brand New Tennessee Waltz." NPR's Mandalit del Barco has an appreciation.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Jesse Winchester was born in Louisiana and grew up in Memphis. He played guitar and listened to R&B and doo-wop. After college, he planned on becoming a lawyer. But in 1967, he got his draft notice. Instead of going to war in Vietnam, he fled to Canada. In Montreal, Winchester began writing music and singing, always looking back to his roots in the American South.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRAND NEW TENNESSEE WALTZ")

BARCO: Winchester released his first album, produced by Robbie Robertson of The Band. Music critics hailed him as the next Bob Dylan, but he was not able to perform in the U.S. because of his draft status. He told NPR in 1986 that he was always somewhat ambivalent about performing anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILOXI")

BOB MEHR: From just a pure visceral level, his voice was, you know, gentle and beautiful and powerful.

BARCO: Memphis music journalist Bob Mehr says Winchester is considered very much a Southern writer.

MEHR: Rodney Crowell, who was a friend and admirer of his, I think he said that Jesse's songs combined the gravity of William Faulkner and the levity of Flannery O'Conner. You know, there was a kind of southerness to it, a humor and wistfulness, you know, all the sort of great elements of what we consider kind of Southern writing, not just Southern songwriting.

BARCO: Winchester's songs were revered and recorded by the likes of Wilson Pickett, the Everly Brothers, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Winchester always considered himself a songwriter first.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BARCO: Jesse Winchester returned to the U.S. in 1977 after President Jimmy Carter pardoned the Vietnam era draft exiles. His music enjoyed a revival in more recent years. In one of his last performances on TV, Winchester paid a soulful homage to the old doo-wop songs he loved.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAM-A-LING-DONG-DING")

BARCO: Winchester brought the audience and the show's host, Elvis Costello, to tears. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAM-A-LING-DONG-DING")

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.