Album Review

Jesse Winchester's A Reasonable Amount of Trouble: A Southern Gentleman's Farewell

 - Error

"Say what needs saying....and then try not to say anything else." 
— Jesse Winchester on what makes a good song

Goodbye is the hardest thing to say.  For songmakers, and those of us who actually do much more than just listen to them, a farewell has a bittersweet inevitability. There is a certain melancholy that pervades singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester's final collection of songs, A Reasonable Amount of Trouble, before his untimely passing last April to cancer. It is hard to gauge how much of this is due to this listener's own sense of melancholy over the artist's passing and how much comes from the deep sense of bittersweet farewell woven into every track of this album. But, this is no reason to avoid this final work of one of America's finest songwriters. In fact, in essence, it's possibly one of the most life affirming and uplifting Americana albums of the year.

It was over 40 years ago that Jesse Winchester's first album came out with such pure, straightforward songs as "Yankee Lady" and "The Brand New Tenessee Waltz", boasting production by the Band's Robbie Robertson. He was an organically independent artist who tempered his gentle Southern romanticism with strains of blues, country, and folk. Later in his career, he would even throw in some doo-wop and appealing pop covers. He was among the first American artist to blur the line between author, poet, lyricist, and storyteller in a way that helped to create a new form of songwriting that embraced both the troubadour and the philosopher, all wrapped up in the fine vintage wine of his tenor voice. It all emerged from this Southern gentleman's soul.

That this album was produced by Mac McAnally during the period Winchester was undergoing treatment for cancer, adds a bittersweet finale to his legacy. Songs of wistful irony confront the reality of his situation with his usual understated wisdom and lyrical sketches drawn with humor, occassional sadness, and insight. Nothing more is needed of the artist than to be fully present to each melodic moment, to embody that gentle poet he has always been. They are handcrafted songs from the point of view of an artist taking mortal stock of his life with dignity and love. He drinks in every last drop living each vital minute and draws every breath from his final songs with uncommon courage and grace.

Producer McAnally wisely keeps Winchester's voice and guitar out front with minimal sonic effects. The artist has compiled his final collection of new original songs in a way that  brings both a smile and an occasional tear. But then, one of the distinctive points of Winchester's songwriting legacy has been his ability to draw a range of emotion through the romanticism of songs and insights embedded in the simple pleasures and sorrows of everyday life.

"She Makes It Easy Now" and the fine rocker "Never Forget to Boogie" return us to the same bluesy terrain as the early "Isn't That So."  "A Little Louisiana" is a fine homage to his southern roots in a similar vein to "Mississippi You're On My Mind." He also pays a final tribute to his beloved doo-wop and '60s pop tunes on "Devil or Angel" and "Rhythm of the Rain." But, most touching of all are the songs that look back, without a sense of pity. Rather, there is an ongoing feeling of all that has gone before simply being embraced. "Ghosts" embodies this experience: "These old memories can sure get me down / going through life with these ghosts all around / oh how they haunt me," he sings.

The final song, "Just So Much," captures much of what Winchester has touched on through his entire career; making peace with his own fate and ours, with the refrain, "there is just so much, so much the Lord can do / isn't it true?"  It's a song without a wasted word or emotion,  for those close to him before he leaves and one he has gracefully opened to us. It is as graceful as rain, as wise as the ages, as human as our deepest vulnerability too often hidden in our denial of our mortality. With this album, Winchester has done the ultimate work of an artist, opening his heart and capturing his vital hold on the final moments of his life in song.

On A Reasonable Amount of Trouble, Jesse Winchester bids farewell.  Personally, there's comfort in believing he may be writing songs with his natural songwriting ancestor, Stephen Foster. One can only hope so.

 

 

A lovely remembrance. Thanks, Terry!

Thanks for the soulful bittersweet remembrance of a wonderful writer/singer/spirit.

Sandy Carter

Jesse was a rare one indeed. I often perform Patti Page's "Tennessee Waltz" for elder audiences, then  I medley Jesse's "Brand New Tennessee Waltz" while talking about how the former song influenced the latter and finally how Patti Page completed the circle by recording "Brand New Tennessee Waltz" herself.

I'm sure Jesse was pleased by that.    Inspiration begets inspiration. 

 

  

Thanks Paul......that's a great story in and of itself!  A circle of son, so to speak.  I know Jesse must've been honored.  

Paul, Dennis brings up a good point...Do you have this on YouTube or mp3.....I'd love to hear your story of the two songs and their connection.  Also, there's no finer an audience for this music than older folks.....so receptive. 

Gone, but far from forgotten. Thank you, Terry. 

I remember the first time I heard "Yankee Lady". I was in Montreal, at Dawson College; it was the '70s and I was a budding folk musician. Penny Lang was a friend. They were heady days in the Montreal folk scene, and Jesse's music was a breath of fresh air. I have to admit, I lost track of him now and then as my life took its twists and turns, but I never forgot the simplicity and beauty of "Yankee Lady" and "Brand New Tennessee Waltz". Over the years I rediscovered the beauty of Jesse's music time and time again. A couple of years ago I finally got to see him at Hugh's Room in Toronto, and I could have listened to him for hours and hours (and hours).

Thanks for the lovely review and reminiscences. I haven't listened yet - I want to give myself the chance to absorb the whole album when I can give it my undivided attention. But, I will. And then I'll listen to all of the 'oldies' and the new music that he graced us with over the years - Love Filling Station is one of my favourites.

Goodbye, Jesse. I'll remember you as long as I live - and you live in your music.

Thanks Terry for another fine piece. I've been a fan since his first release so I was especially pleased to learn we get one more album from the great artist. I'm looking forward to hearing it. And Paul, your medley of the two songs sounds lovely. I'd love to hear it.

Thank you Dennis........

 

I was aware of Jesse Winchester playing the local folk circuit in Montreal growing up there in the 70's. I wasn't real interested in his music then, it appealed to people in their 20's and 30's, and I was too busy with album rock like Boston, Queen and Kiss to pay much attention, though I paid attention his draft dodger story because the music teacher at my brothers' elementary school was a draft dodger too(even grew up in Stockbridge, MA and knew Officer Obie all too well). I've grown to enjoy Jesse's music in passing over the years, though I must admit I considered the protagonist in "Yankee Lady" a bit of a cad(after all, I married a yankee lady, I'm real protective of them) until I remembered Jesse was unable to set foot in the United States without risking being arrested for quite a few years. Gerald Ford did two things I know of in his brief presidency: he pardoned both Richard Nixon and the draft dodgers, thus allowing Jesse to come home in 1976.

That was Jimmy Carter, not Ford, who pardoned draft resisters, on his first day in office, Christopher.

It's a minor point, I guess, but I think it's also a little much to use the term "draft dodgers'' - in Jesse's case, it was a hard and painful decision, particularly because of his deep Southern roots.  Not an easy call for a lot of other people, too.  "I was baptized in water/ I'll pass on one by fire/You want to fight, go on and fight, if that be your desire,'' as he put it in verses he added to "Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt."

"Yankee Lady'' was a young man's song - and a beautiful one - and I'm sure the real life subject, assuming there was one, long ago forgave him for any possible transgressions, and didn't mind being honored in song. 

Boston, Kiss, Queen, eh? Well, to each his own. Glad you've moved on. 

 

I'd go along with Paul on the nuance between draft dodger and resister. I remember well the day President Carter issued the pardon......I know Jesse felt bad in later years for his resistance to the Vietnam War having interviewed him about it. But, he acted out of conscience not cowardice.

I also go back to that amazing first album (while YL and BNTW always get mentioned, listen to the other gems on that great release (rockers like "That's the Touch I Like" and one of my faves "Biloxi"). Long time JW friend and guitarist, Bob Cohen, whom I believe saw him through his final days, will be with us in Toronto this Friday for Gram InterNational North, http://gram2014toronto.info. Here's a pic of Bob (left) with Jesse and ND Smart III (also Mountain and Ian Tyson's Great Speckled Bird; Ian once called ND Smart a "psychodelic cowboy) https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10204458329679613&set=t.1272932265&type=3&theater (I'd upload it to this post but I can't and I'm not doing that two-step upload to database thing first). Cheers, hope to see some of you Friday at the Cadillac Lounge.

Terry A very nice tribute. I hated to see Jesse go. I loved the song "A Touch on the Rainy Side" and my personal favorite, the acapella "Can't Stand Up Alone." Somehow, I can picture him singing that still.... Joe McSpadden