Jesse Winchester,
A Reasonable Amount of Trouble
(Appleseed, 2014)

With A Reasonable Amount of Trouble Jesse Winchester, who died of cancer on April 11, 2014, departed the world on a grace note. Then again, all of his albums, from his eponymous Bearsville release in 1970 onward to this last, have been grace notes. There was only one Jesse Winchester, and there will be no other.

Generous in spirit yet never sentimental, infused with the seriousness of folk and the sweetness of pop, Winchester's songs bespoke a kind of melancholy romanticism. The best of them -- there were no worst; for that matter, precious few mediocre -- were marvels of the songwriting art. The influences were the radio favorites of his youth as filtered through the late-1960s coffeehouse music scene in which the Louisiana-born Winchester began writing and performing while a draft exile in Canada.

His first album, the most strictly folk-like, produced the enduring classics "Brand New Tennessee Waltz" and "Biloxi." With characteristic modesty Winchester was wont to insist that the former, however admired by others, falls short of "Your Cheatin' Heart." Which is certainly an odd thing to say. To start with, "Waltz," whose atmospherics feel as if from a ballad of the Civil War era, is an entirely different kind of song. And second, while Winchester could have written "Cheatin' Heart," Hank Williams could not have written "Brand New Tennessee Waltz." In subsequent albums Winchester's songs grew more personal, amounting to straightforwardly expressed but philosophically layered meditations on the content of quotidian life: love, regret, happiness, children, gossip, memory, the human comedy, the pleasures of music.

Death, which is one part of life, hangs over this beautiful and moving recording. When Amount was being recorded (sensitively produced by Nashville songwriter Mac McAnally), Winchester had been pronounced cancer free, but the reprieve proved temporary. Soon enough, the disease returned to finish its brutal work. It is no surprise that most of the nine original songs address, subtly or bluntly, the fragility of existence. The closer, "Just So Much," features the heart-ripping line "There is just so much God can do," which rings truer to the life we know than religious sentiment's claim to the contrary.

The autumnal feeling is enhanced by the darkening of Winchester's celebrated tenor. Not that illness diminished his fine voice; it's just that the lower, seemingly confidential voice underscores the urgency of the moment. The hour being late, there is no time left but for what absolutely matters. "Every Day I Get the Blues," about as good as any song Winchester ever wrote, evokes the despair and courage of final days.

It's not all gloom, however. Winchester laid down a couple of blissfully good-natured cuts, "A Little Louisiana" (swamp-pop dance rhythms punctuated by accordion) and "Never Forget to Boogie" (a nod to Winchester's familiar brand of light-hearted r&b). He revives three mid-century pop hits, and he does them, as one would expect, expertly and affectionately. Still, one can't help reflecting how much better "Rhythm of the Rain" and "Devil or Angel" would have been if he had written them.

Sad to contemplate, there will be no more where this comes from. "Say what needs saying," Winchester liked to sum up his songwriter's philosophy, "and then try not to say anything else." In his last will and testament, this kind and decent man took care not to break the rule. Now that he will never say anything else, this -- alongside all else that he left along the diamond highway he traveled to get to this place -- will have to carry us through.

music review by
Jerome Clark

1 November 2014

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