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Features / News

April 18, 2014

Jesse Winchester: Talk Memphis

Jesse Winchester: ‘Asking how growing up Memphis influenced my work is a bit like asking a fish to describe the water. It was the world to me.’ (Photo from the Jesse Winchester fansite, Jesse Winchester’s Studio at

Jesse Winchester: ‘Asking how growing up Memphis influenced my work is a bit like asking a fish to describe the water. It was the world to me.’ (Photo from the Jesse Winchester fansite, Jesse Winchester’s Studio at

I. Childhood & Schooling

My real name, or legal name, is James Redue Winchester. Jesse, I usually go by Jesse, born in 1944. I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and I was raised–except for the first 12 years of my life in Mississippi–in Memphis.

(We lived) kind of all over the place, but we wound up in Germantown, and Germantown in those days was a very small farming town. It wasn’t anything like it is now. And that’s where I grew up, I guess. It was great. We had horses, and we just ran wild. We had a great time. It was a great place to be a kid. As I say, it was country then, farms, and that’s sort of the boyhood that I had.

I was the organist at church, and that was kind of interesting for me–it was a very small church, and it really says more for the miniscule talent pool than it does for how gifted a musician I was, the fact that I became the organist and the choir director. And it was me and several teenage girls who were the choir. And that was good. I was raised a Catholic, and there’s no way out of religion playing a big part in your life when you’re raised as a Catholic. And I was a very–at least by my own standards–devout Catholic until I reached my late teens, when I started to question things and I fell away from the church and never really went back.  The common parlance today is to say that you’re spiritual, but not religious, and I’m afraid that applies to me, too. That’s kind of the way I think of myself now.

Michael Martin Murphey, ‘I’m Gonna Miss You Girl,’ a Jesse Winchester song from Murph’s 1987 album River of Time. Released as a single, it peaked at #3 on Billboard’s Country Singles chart and #4 on the Canadian RPM Country Tracks chart.

I enjoyed living the country life. I would take care of the neighbors’ livestock, bring in the cows at night, all that kind of, you know, country-type stuff.  I enjoyed that. I remember it fondly. I can remember when I went to retrieve a fishing lure that had snagged on the bottom of a lake, and almost cut my little toe off.  I had to walk all the way into Germantown with my bleeding toe. I remember that.

I went to CBC high school–what we called CBC, and now it’s CBHS. And when I went there,it was on East Parkway, which is now the college. Then I went to a Williams College, which is a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts. And I took a couple of years off and went to the University of Munich, in Germany. And then I came back and finished my degree at Williams. I studied languages. I majored in German. I really was not a scholar. I had no real business going to college. I was taking up valuable space for someone who was a good scholar.  But in those days, you see, we were trying to stay out of the Army, a lot of us were, and to do that you needed to stay in school. So I stayed in school.

I came back from school in the east and I got back to Memphis, I think, in the fall, after I graduated in June. And I got my draft notice in December. And after thinking about it and consulting with some people I trusted I left in January. So that’s–what?–four months that I stayed here in Memphis, and in January I went to Montreal. And I lived there for the next 37 years.


II: Integration

(Integration) has been a permanent part of my life. It goes on to this day. William Faulkner said that southern life is defined by race, and I’m a witness. I can remember when I was a little boy in Mississippi, we would take gift baskets around to our neighbors, our black neighbors.

And maybe I was five or six years old, my mom and I–my mom would pull the car up in front of one neighbor’s house and say, “Now, Jimmy, you go in and take this gift box to the Johnsons,” or whoever it was. And I was nervous and shy, and I said, “Well, what do I do? Do I ask for Mr. Johnson?” She said, “Oh, no, no, you don’t call him ‘mister,’ you just say ‘Bob,’” or whoever it was. And I thought, “Well, that’s funny. Why don’t I call him mister? And I didn’t go into it there, although I did raise the question. But I think momma just said, “Well, that’s the way it is.” And that’s my first memory of that, because growing up in Mississippi, all my school–not the school children, my playmates were black kids.

Jesse Winchester performs the title track of his 1981 album, ‘Talk Memphis,’ live at the Belcourt Theatre, Nashville, November 18, 2010.

The only neighbors we had were black. And it never occurred to me that there was any difference. And from that moment on, I became a racial liberal, and I stayed that way all my life.

Now, that’s not necessarily a really good thing, I discovered, because in a way, it’s racist in its own way. But that’s what I was, and it put me at odds with a lot of my school chums and family and the people around me. And it flavored my whole life here.


III: Music & Memphis & Montreal

I was musical as a very young child. It was just always my focus. So I knew that all along, and it became my identity in the family, my identity at school. It was sort of who I was. And that’s been true all my life. (Asking how growing up Memphis influenced my work) is a bit like asking a fish to describe the water. It was the world to me. For many, many years, and in a way it still is, I suppose. It set my culture, my language, the way I look at things. It certainly set my taste in food. I–to this day, I think Memphis has the best food in the world. No joke. And what’s more important than food? I really can’t think of anything.

Jesse Winchester, ‘Yankee Lady,’ live on the Old Grey Whistle Test, BBC, 1976. The song first appeared on his debut album, released in 1970.

If I worked at it, I might come up with a couple of alternatives, but anyway, it’s–my tastes–some of my tastes in music have never changed from that. I tuned out on what was happening in the rest of the world very early on, and just decided that, you know, if they made anything better than rhythm and blues, and down home country music, I have yet to hear it. I just–you know, no matter what they come out with, that stuff that I heard when I was a kid is still the best stuff to me, and it–I mean, I hate to be such a stick in the mud, but that’s the way it is for me.

I went through a series of kind of binges on different people. I remember when I was very young I loved anything Latin. That rhythm just appealed to me, and the melodies, and the language–I loved it. But then, I heard, in high school–well, of course, Elvis came along when I was maybe 10. And just the whole town–that’s all we could talk about or think about was Elvis. He just preoccupied everybody in town, including me. But I remember the–I was in the recreation hall, and we used to have–there were two public swimming pools here, Clearwater and Rainbow.

Jesse Winchester, live at The Depot, Hyannis, MA, August 3, 2013, performs an as-yet-unreleased song, ‘Just So Much the Lord Can Do’

And I was in the snack bar at one of them, and somebody played “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles. And the sun came out for me. I heard that music, and I just thought, “This is it. This is fantastic.” And from that point on, I just became–anything Ray Charles did, I just had to hear it and just consumed it.  So that lasted a long time. It never did go away, really, my love for Ray Charles. And then I discovered Bobby Blue Bland, who I believe was from Arkansas, but he somehow had a Houston connection. But it didn’t matter to me. He was a big star here in Memphis, Bobby Blue Bland. And I loved him.

And then I discovered Muddy Waters, and all of the Chicago blues people, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry–I just love Chuck Berry, to this day. I think he’s one of the greatest songwriters this country has ever produced. The wit, the literacy of Chuck Berry, the facility with language that he had, I just don’t know anybody else who can match him.

Emmylou Harris with a live version of Jesse Winchester’s ‘My Songbird.’ Buddy Miller on guitar.

Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band perform Jesse Winchester’s ‘Defying Gravity’

Those people were really important to me. You’ll notice that they’re all black. It wasn’t until I got to–oh, I guess I was in my early 20s–it’s funny, it happened when Martin Luther King was killed. There was a dividing point.

At that time, the black people seemed to recoil from working with white people. Up until then, we had Booker T and the MGs here in Memphis, which was two white kids and two black kids playing together, making fantastic music. And I wanted to be like Steve Cropper, or a white kid playing black music, so bad. And it affected my playing, too, that very deliberate funky style that he had, very, very simple. This is the way the song goes. It’s–there are no extra notes. It’s played very, very deliberately, is the word that I keep using. Anyway, when Martin Luther King was killed, it seemed like the black people got so angry that he was a black person who offered the hand of friendship to people, of nonviolence, and what happened? But this person tries to destroy him. And God help us all, (James Earl Ray) succeeded, to a degree. I think he really tried to poison the well, and what we got was, as I say, the black people recoiling from working with us. Rhythm and blues, up until that time, I think, was a beautiful combination of country music and the blues. You know, sort of like “When a Man Loves a Woman.” That was a country song, really, performed in an R&B way, and that’s what Elvis was doing, too. It was blending these two schools of music, and it was making something really, really special.

And after Dr. King was killed, what happened was, James Brown, who up until that time was making melodic music, all of the sudden James Brown was playing nothing but grooves that lasted for three and a half or four minutes, in a D-flat or nine chord, that lasted for three or four minutes. And that was it.  There was no more–the country music got cut out of rhythm and blues, and now it’s developed into what’s now hip-hop music, which is a groove and the lyrics.  No real melody to speak of, which is what I think–that I like to think is what country contributed. So we split off, as a result of that. It’s sad to me. It’s sad to me.

Jesse Winchester, ‘That’s What Makes  You Strong,’ AMSD Concerts, September 11, 2010

I got to Montreal with an attitude, I discovered, that was pretty typical of Americans around–really, anywhere in the world–and that’s an arrogance that’s unmistakable. I felt like we had the best music in the world in Memphis. And I’m here to tell you about it, to demonstrate it. And that’s never really changed. I’ve never changed that point of view. I still think that Memphis music is the best. I realize it’s ridiculous and subjective and arrogant, again, but there it is.

I went to Montreal in 1967, and this was the–really, the whole counter-culture hippie movement was really getting into high gear at that point. And musically, what that turned out to be, I’m thinking mainly because of the drugs that everyone was consuming, it turned out to be songs that involved, you know, ten-minute electric guitar solos that began nowhere and wound up nowhere. You know, no cohesion in the music at all, to my ear.

Jesse Winchester, the title track of his 1977 Brian Ahern-produced album, Nothing But a Breeze

And I think the music of that period was terrible. I just can’t stand it. I think the Beatles lost whatever magic they had at the beginning, during that period. I just think people went crazy musically, and every other way. But we’re talking about music now, and what happened was, a group called The Band came along. They had been accompanying Bob Dylan, and they made an album called Music from Big Pink, which had structure, interesting arrangements, lyrics, all the things that I wanted in music. They were essentially a conservative movement in music.  Back to respect for your elders, belief in God, close to the land, all these things, all these conservative values. That’s what they represented, to me, at least. And given what was going on, this was a breath of fresh air to me, and I took to it right away.

And oddly enough, by some coincidence, I was introduced to the leader and primary songwriter, Robbie Robertson. And that was my introduction to the recording business, and so forth, the whole–it was the beginning of my recording career. That’s how it happened.

Jesse Winchester, ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind,’ originally released on 1974’s Learn to Love It

Jesse Winchester, ‘Biloxi,’ live at the Bow Valley Music Club, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, March 23, 2013. Originally released on his 1970 debut album.



IV: Memphis Today and Tomorrow

(My wife) Cindy and I lived here for a couple of years when I first came back (to the States), so I got a good view, I think, of the city then, in its more recent incarnation. And it’s hard times. I don’t remember the relationship between the races being as stressful as it is today, when I was a younger person living here.  Of course, I was a white kid. I mean, you know, the world was my oyster, or at least, you know, the world was my rack of ribs, if you’d like. But black people, you saw them wearing white uniforms, catching the bus to and from working in the white lady’s house. You know, that’s really all you saw.

So I would never wanna go back to those days, for the black people. On the other hand, there wasn’t the violence and the rancor that I seem to see today. What’s the cure for that? Well, actually, I think the cure for that is sitting here in the room with us in the person of my friend over here, Chris Little, who teaches black kids and white kids, too, that are disadvantaged and in trouble. And I think we have to have some sort of spiritual rebirth, and it has to come from individuals who just display the love that we’ve been taught about, but find so hard to put into practice. Other than that, I really don’t know what is gonna help. I think it’s people like Chris Little. That’s the only hope I see.

An American classic: Jesse Winchester, ‘Brand New Tennessee Waltz,’ from his debut album (1970)



V: So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star

I think that if you’re not sure, that’s kinda telltale to me. If you’re really a musician you’re probably pretty sure that this is what you wanna do. It would be hard to imagine doing anything else, I think. And if you do wanna play music, then the only advice I can offer is just to keep playing music. And you may not get rich or famous; in fact there’s a good chance that you won’t, but you’ll be happy. That’s really the only advice I can give you: just keep playing right in the place that you are. Play every night you can, and let whatever–be a magnet, as opposed to going out and grabbing it, you know. So just play as well as you can, every opportunity you’re given, and whatever is due you will come to you. I believe that.

Excerpted from the Crossroads to Freedom Interview conducted by Bradley Bledsoe and Emma Flandt at Rhodes College, Memphis, TN, November 19, 2010

Follow this link to Part 1 of our Jesse Winchester tribute, ‘The Magic of Jesse Winchester’



Jesse Winchester, ‘I Wave Bye Bye,’ live at the Belcourt Theatre, Nashville, November 18, 2010. This song originally appeared on Jesse’s 1991 Jerry Douglas-produced album, A Gentleman of Leisure.

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