Jesse Winchester,
Love Filling Station
(Appleseed, 2009)

Jesse Winchester recordings have become infrequent occurrences. The last, the appropriately titled Gentleman of Leisure (Sugar Hill), was a full decade ago. Unexpectedly, Love Filling Station shows up in today's mail. As it plays while I write these words, I recall his first, eponymous album, released in 1970 with The Band's J.R. Robertson producing, which gave the impression of having been conceived sometime around the Civil War. The beautiful, enigmatic "Brand New Tennessee Waltz" -- the first song Winchester ever wrote -- still moves me. Another destined-to-be classic, "Biloxi," conjures up a kind of mystical vision out of a simple beach scene, linking literal images to the metaphoric "oceanic feeling" of profound spiritual experience.

Hardly anything in Winchester's output since then has entered the imagined past of that record. Inexplicably to me (and I suspect just about anybody else), he has even denigrated "Waltz," sometimes characterizing it -- also inexplicably -- as a failed attempt to rewrite "Your Cheating Heart," which it in no way resembles. I doubt that Hank Williams possessed the mental wattage to create a "Waltz," but I'm just as sure that if he had lived long enough to hear it, he would have wished he'd written it.

On the other hand, Winchester says he always wanted to be a commercially successful songwriter as opposed to "a serious folk artist." Over the decades he has certainly done well in the marketplace, not as a performing act (where -- ironically -- he continues to play the folk circuit) but as a dependable supplier of hits to country, pop and the more melody-focused r&b acts. The last big hit of Winchester's -- at least that I'm aware of -- was The Mavericks' "Oh What a Thrill," a soaringly operatic piece that seemed tailor-made for the unfortunately late Roy Orbison.

"Thrill" opens the plaintively titled Love Filling Station. Winchester's voice, as rich and expressive as anybody's in the singer-songwriter business, comes close to matching Maverick Raul Malo's. It exemplifies the style Winchester honed in the 1970s: the sincere love song, devoid of any hint of irony, distance or anger. To many, including the undersigned, songs answering to that description are unwelcome intrusions into the more sober concerns of art and life. Except that Winchester is so overwhelmingly gifted at what he does that he can persuade even the jaded, grouchy likes of me to listen to something (it's here on this album) called "I'm Gonna Miss You, Girl" -- and like it. ("Girl" was a hit years ago for sometime country-pop singer Michael Martin Murphey. I remember going so far as to pump coins into a jukebox to hear it.)

Station will please Winchester fans and even has a few surprises for them. Not least of them is a charming Western-swing original about small-town gossip, "It's a Shame About Him." In quite another vein is a powerfully understated reading of Terry Smith's folk-gospel tearjerker "Far Side Banks of Jordan," which has the feeling of something (though it isn't) from the Carter Family repertoire.

Co-produced by Winchester and Bil VornDick, the album features a small country-folk band. Numbered in its ranks are two noted bluegrass pickers, dobroist Jerry Douglas and fiddler Andy Leftwich. Another bluegrass star, singer Claire Lynch, joins Winchester on Ann Lucas's "Loose Talk," a rare Winchester excursion into hard country. Notwithstanding the presence of bluegrass performers, bluegrass is not a presence here. But just about every other genre of American vernacular music -- well, not rock -- can be heard carrying Winchester's always supremely hummable tunes.

review by
Jerome Clark

30 May 2009

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