On Sunday, December 8th, Beth Sholom Synagogue will host Acoustic Sunday Live!, a concert with three acts: Jesse Winchester is a former Memphian who worked with Robbie Robertson and the Band and has had his songs recorded by Joan Baez, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, the Everly Brothers, and others. Mary Gauthier is a singer-songwriter with a colorful past and an iconoclastic 'tude. No Depression magazine named Gauthier's album Mercy Now the sixth best album of the decade. Memphis' Motel Mirrors with John Paul Keith and Amy LaVere round out the bill.
Winchester was born in Louisiana in 1944, but his family moved to Memphis when he was 12. He always had a musical bent. "I certainly wasn't a prodigy in terms of talent. But I was in terms of enthusiasm and interest. I was always into it, but I didn't start writing until later," he says.
Winchester gained experience like so many musical Memphians do: "We had a garage band in Memphis with my friends. We were called the Church Keys. No one's ever heard of us. We were as insignificant as we could possibly be. The big guys were the Shades. At one point, Larry Raspberry tried out for our guitar player. He never took the job. I don't know what happened, but he showed up one day. He had a Stratocaster with 'Larry' engraved on the fingerboard like Ernest Tubb."
Winchester's life took a major turn when he went to Canada to avoid the draft. It's not a subject he readily addresses. It's a complex decision for a young man and a philosophical quandary for an adult. "I really couldn't tell you in simple words what my thoughts and feelings were," Winchester says. "I don't know if I could do that."
The decision kept him in exile until President Carter pardoned draft dodgers in 1977. But in 1968, he encountered a life-altering opportunity.
"I was in the basement of a church where this guy owned a really nice two-track tape recorder. He offered to let me use it. We set it up in the basement of the church, and I would make a demo tape of some songs that I'd written. A friend of a friend lived in Montreal and knew Robbie Robertson. The Band had just hit big with Music from Big Pink. I had heard that and been knocked out because here was somebody playing musical parts as opposed to 30-minute stoned-out guitar solos that went nowhere and started nowhere. The Band represented a kind of return to roots. I was really impressed and thought music was ready for that. Anyway, this friend of a friend brought Robbie down into the basement of the church."
Robertson eventually produced Winchester's first self-titled album: "He liked the songs. And it was convenient because we were working on the demo at the time. So everything fell into place. He took a copy to Albert Grossman, who was their manager at the time. He was Gordon Lightfoot's and Bob Dylan's manager. Janis Joplin's manager. As big as you can get. Albert liked it. That's how my recording career began."
By the time things were up and running, the situation proved to be short-lived.
"He produced the first record I made," Winchester says. "We did it at Yorktown Studios in Toronto. We used a bunch of the guys who'd worked with Ronnie Hawkins but didn't become the Band. Ken Pearson played keys, and Dave Lewis played drums — a lot of the leading lights of the Toronto music scene, which is a very good music scene at any time."
Levon Helm played mandolin and shared drum duty on Jesse Winchester.
"I opened for the Band a few times when they did shows in Canada. There was one particular night we did together at Massey Hall, a beautiful concert hall with old wood, so it just sounds beautiful. We did a few other shows together. But it wasn't long after that they quit playing entirely or at least touring. So doing further stuff with them wasn't really an option."
But songwriting has been the basis of Winchester's success and notoriety. He began writing after being frustrated with live performance.
"After I moved to Montreal, I had some trouble getting stolen from by promoters with bands. I'd worked with bands most always, usually as a rhythm guitar player. The promoters would just take off with the money and what have you. All kinds of problems developed. So I just started to play solo in restaurants and that kind of thing. I got a job at a coffeehouse where you were expected to write your own songs like Bob Dylan did. I started writing when I started playing solo, and it never stopped. Except for dry spells."
Accounting for dry spells, Winchester's output is profound. His reception among the top-tier songwriters of his time is unreal: Tim Hardin recorded Winchester's song "Yankee Lady." Elvis Costello recorded "Quiet About It." James Taylor cut "Payday." The list goes on and on: Roseanne Cash, Jimmy Buffett, Vince Gill, Lucinda Williams, Little Feat, Lyle Lovett, and Allen Toussaint. It's a staggering group of songwriters to have endorsing one's output. They mostly cover his songs. But sometimes he gets together to collaborate.
"Every now and then someone invites me to sing harmony on something. Wynonna Judd did, and that was fun. The Weather Girls, if you remember "It's Raining Men," their follow-up song to that, which was a flop, was one of my songs. They invited me to sing harmony on it, which was fun. Jimmy Buffett and those people will invite me to collaborate. It happens, and it's fun when it does."
Winchester's Memphis connections endure in ways old and new: "I live in Charlottesville, Virginia. I lived in Quebec until 2003, 37 years. Then I met Cindy, who, oddly enough, I met when I was playing in Memphis. She was living here, but she's from Iowa. And, you know, you introduce a woman into the story and the plot zigs. And it zags."
Winchester still has family here. Among those kin is notable drummer Graham Winchester, who toured Europe in March with fellow performer John Paul Keith.
As for Keith, he is busy promoting his latest solo album, Memphis Circa 3AM, which was one of Roland Janes' last projects.
"It was the best-sounding session I've ever worked on," Keith says. "He really did have it. Not only was it a privilege to be around him and to know him and all that, it was also the best session I've ever had. It came out as the best results I ever got. It was really special."
Acoustic Sunday Live!
With Jesse Winchester, Mary Gauthier, and Motel Mirrors
Sunday, December 8th, 7 p.m., $39-$100
Beth Sholom Synagogue