Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester lost his battle with cancer on April 11, 2014, just over a month shy of his 70th birthday. He died at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. A songwriter’s songwriter, Jesse Winchester was revered and widely covered by other artists. “You can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him,” Bob Dylan once said.

Jesse Winchester

Jesse Winchester

For some four decades, Jesse Winchester wrote and performed what is now known as “Americana”—thoughtful, plain-spoken, evocative songs laden with poetic imagery about the American South where he grew up — vivid small-town vignettes and empathetic stories of everyday life and people, and of heartfelt love and love lost.

Born (ironically – see below) on a military base in Bossier City, Louisiana, Winchester grew up in rural northern Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. Although he took piano lessons for 10 years and played organ in church, Winchester began playing guitar in bands while in high school. A 1966 graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts, where he majored in German, he also spent a year studying overseas and toured around Germany with a rock band. As the Vietnam War raged in1967, he fled the U.S. and moved to Canada to avoid the draft. “Yankee Lady,” one of his best-known songs and his first hit in Canada, was inspired by that experience and has been covered by Brewer & Shipley, Tim Hardin and Matthews’ Southern Comfort. Although President Carter granted him and many other war resistors amnesty in 1977, Winchester spent 25 years based in Montreal before returning to the U.S. and settling in Charlottesville in 2002.

Robbie Robertson of the Band produced Winchester’s self-titled debut album in 1970. The album, also featuring fellow Band-mate Levon Helm on drums and mandolin (with Todd Rundgren as engineer), reached # 26 on the Canadian radio charts and sported songs that have since been covered by a wide array of recording artists.. Winchester released several more albums during the 1970s. However, unable to tour in the U.S., the self-imposed exile with a light, honey-voiced southern drawl became known primarily as a songwriter.

Joan Baez, The Everly Brothers and Anne Murray, among others, recorded his song “Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” while Jimmy Buffett and Tom Rush have recorded “Biloxi” and “Defying Gravity.” Wynona Judd, Nicolette Larson, Reba McEntire, Michael Martin Murphey, George Strait and Wilson Pickett are among the other artists who have recorded his songs.

In a recent Facebook post, Baez called Winchester “A man who held the audience in the palm of his hand without moving an inch. One of the best songwriters on earth.”
The American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers (ASCAP) recognized him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.

Winchester released his tenth and final studio album, Love Filling Station, in 2009 and reportedly had recently completed another one called A Reasonable Amount of Trouble. He was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 2011. In 2012, his friend Jimmy Buffett’s label released Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester. In a testament to how revered he was by his fellow artists, the album features Buffet, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Little Feat, Lyle Lovett, Mac McAnally, James Taylor and Allen Toussaint covering some of his best known songs.

Here’s how Winchester announced the news of the tribute album on his own website: “When I was sick last year, fixing to die, some friends decided to make a CD of various artists performing my songs. Jimmy Buffett wrote me around Christmastime with the news. I struggled out of my chair and did a little boogaloo around the living room. I guess I wasn’t that sick.”

Besides his wife Cindy, Jesse Winchester leaves behind a daughter, two sons, a stepdaughter, three grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, a brother and a sister. He also leaves a pantheon of songs and an indelible mark on the world of music.