Saturday, April 06, 2013

A perfect record

I know what they say about snowflakes/How there ain't no two the same/Well all them flakes look alike to me/And every one is a dirty shame.
Watching the workmen this week erecting a shed at the bottom of our garden in a blizzard made me think of that song from the first Jesse Winchester album from 1970.

Winchester was from Louisiana, which is hot and wet. He fled to Canada, which is cold and snowy, to avoid being drafted into the military to fight in Vietnam.

The songs on the record - songs like Yankee Lady,  Biloxi and Brand New Tennessee Waltz - yearn for Winchester's vanished world of lost content. Snow complains specifically about the weather, which is always understandable.

The handful of people who bought it were either snobs like me, attracted by the fact that it was produced by Robbie Robertson, engineered by Todd Rundgren and appeared on the mysterious Ampex label, or they were people like Elvis Costello and James Taylor, who would in years to come cover the songs.

But nobody has ever improved on the originals. Winchester made good records after this one but his first is one of the handful of rock records I would call perfect. They say that when he'd done the original sessions for Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan played the tracks to Robbie Robertson and asked him to overdub guitar on them. Robertson said "why would I do that?"

The Jesse Winchester album was graced by a similar restraint. Robertson produced it in the same year The Band did Stage Fright and he must have wondered whether Winchester had stumbled on something just as the Band had begun to lose it.

You can get it as an import or you can find it more easily in a "twofer" with the follow-up Third Down 110 To Go. Which is good but it's not perfect.

If you're interested, I post the vinyl that I often play on Saturdays here.


  1. From his 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 livingroom. I guess I wasn't that sick. "

    Thanks for the heads-up. Hadn't ever heard of him.

  2. This had long been an 'always heard of, never heard' album for me. When I saw this I thought, "Well, if David Hepworth says it's worth a listen . . .". It was.

    Thank you and thanks to Spotify. Even on your say so I doubt I'd have taken a flyer if it cost me.

    It may be a difference in our ages, but not the perfect record for me. That distinction goes to (don't laugh) 'Spectres'.

  3. I was one of the 'handful of people' who bought this album in 1970. To be completely accurate, it was brought over from the States for me by a girl I was at college with. I'd seen a 5 star review of the album in Rolling Stone, so when she asked at lunch one day if anyone wanted her to bring anything back from her trip to America I asked for this album.

    To my great surprise she bought it and presented it to me a few weeks later. It had the stiff gate-fold sleeve, unusual Ampex label and Jesse's face on the front, and was quite heavy and imposing. I soon fell in love with the songs and the album was a constant companion for forty years.

    I sold it last year, along with other albums, due to a move to a much smaller property. I don't regret selling it, it owes me nothing, and now someone else is enjoying Jesse's wonderful songs and flawless voice.

    I woke this morning to hear of his death and I was immediately transported back to the canteen at Barnet College and my friend's unexpected present. RIP Jesse, you brought a lot of pleasure and your songs will live on.