HOTSEAT- Southern gent? Folk legend moves to town

Jesse Winchester is way too quiet to be as well spoken as he is. But then, this is clearly a fella for whom actions speak louder than words. In 1967, Winchester left behind his friends, family, and his Vietnam draft notice to make a new life in Canada. One of the most high-profile draft-dodgers of the era, he quickly launched a recording career with the help of Robbie Robertson and Todd Rundgren and scored his largest hit with a particularly inspired single entitled "Yankee Lady."

Later in his career, he grew accustomed to watching his songs make big splashes with country stars like Reba McEntire and Wynonna Judd. Now he's about to get the long-delayed recognition: On February 23, ASCAP will honor Winchester with a lifetime achievement award.

But despite his renown as both a musician and a voice of a generation's disenchantment, he's loath to combine the roles.

"I think politics dates music," Winchester says. "Music includes politics, not the other way around. Politics is implied by a good love song or a good gospel song, not the other way around."


"It's always been the same: women and God– that pretty much covers it for me," he laughs. "I'm not sure of the proper order."

Last May, Winchester packed up shop and moved again. But this time, instead of lighting out for the great white North with Uncle Sam at his heels, he rather uneventfully plunked himself down in a quiet Southern suburban oasis, the sort of sleepy county where a llama on the lam can dominate a news cycle or two. 

How does his muse feel about all this? She doesn't seem to care.

"When I first moved to Canada, I was really narrow-minded and thought you had to be from the South to have soul," he says. "I learned that wasn't true; it doesn't have anything to do with where you're from."

As one of the preeminent figures of the most passionate anti-war movements in American history, moving into the middle of a southern Republican stronghold during a prolonged overseas American military agitation has given him plenty to ponder.

"From the perspective of someone who once again objects very strongly to the war, it seems that this time the people who object don't want to go too far," he reflects. "The last time we offended the very people we should have been trying to convince. We called them names, we misbehaved in silly, pointless ways. We don't want to do that again; we don't want to take it out on the soldiers, who are really not to blame for what's happening."

He also points to another reason for the relatively restrained national response.

"There's no draft now, and that makes a big difference," he says. "It mutes the whole anti-war movement. The war doesn't have nearly the same importance or implications for young people. That's a very big difference between Vietnam and Iraq."

Maybe it also means that he'll stick around for a while.

Age: 62 

Why here? To be closer to our children 

What's worst about living here? It's kind of far from a major airport. 

Favorite hangout? My little studio over the garage 

Most overrated virtue? Piety– the virtue of the Pharisee 

People would be surprised to know? William J. Bennett is my fraternity brother. Speaking of piety.

What would you change about yourself? I'd like to be less self-absorbed, more generous.

Proudest accomplishment? I'm a little vain about my French. I think I have a right to be.

People find most annoying about you? The most frequent complaint is that I'm too quiet, aloof.

Whom do you admire? My mother, my father, Lincoln, Churchill, P. G. Wodehouse, George Jones

Favorite book? Lucky Jim

Subject that causes you to rant? George W. Bush and all his works

Biggest 21st century thrill? The Internet

Biggest 21st century creep-out? TV ads for prescription drugs 

What do you drive? A 2002 Toyota Camry 

In your car CD player right now? Nothing. I listen to the radio– NPR, country and gospel music stations.

Next journey? To Rhode Island and Boston 

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I was indicted for draft dodging in 1967, and then given amnesty in 1977 by President Carter.

Regret? Yes. I've hurt people over the years, sometimes deliberately.

Favorite comfort food? Peanut butter. Real peanut butter, not the Kraft/Peter Pan stuff. 

Always in your refrigerator? Cherries in the summer, tangerines in the winter 

Must-see TV? Seinfeld, noir movies 

Favorite cartoon? The Simpsons 

Describe a perfect day: Morning with the papers and blogs and coffee, work on a great song all day, spend the evening laughing with Cindy 

Walter Mitty fantasy? I want to live in Italy for a couple of years– learn Italian, eat real food. 

Who'd play you in the movie? I think Alfalfa's dead, so, second choice, Harrison Ford. 

Most embarrassing moment? Getting married with my fly open 

Best advice you ever got? "Smile"

Favorite bumper sticker? "I'm starting to miss Richard Nixon"

Jesse Winchester



I just saw Winchester for the first time at a club in Austin. What a great performer. A wonderful show but i was disappointed he didn't do his early called "That's What I Like About Roosevelt." One of the truly great songs.

Very well written article.

Steve Speir
Austin, Tx. 78723

I try to see him every year when he comes to Hugh's Room in Toronto. Such a beautiful voice, I think some people overlook this when lauding his songwriting. I've been listening to him since "Jesse Winchester" was released in 1970? We never know how long we'll be around or how long he will.

There is a haunting beauty to this man's music, it hits inside you where your thoughts and feelings go, it is a private place, and he finds it and reminds you of what really matters in this life. I first saw Jesse Winchester probably 35 years ago, there was spiritualism and romance in hiw words, political feelings as well. He celebrates life, and love and sometimes the hypocracy of what lies between all these things. Jesse Winchester is uncomplicated and real, his voice resonates and moves, very easy to warm up to....a true musician...yes a troubadour...through your ears he captures you......he opens your eyes...and touches your heart........he is a gift, see him if you can. You will carry him forever in your soul.

I was just listening to an interview of Mr. Winchester where he says his music has never been popular. I would like to say he's loved in our house. My 17 year old son just returned "Gentleman of Leisure," which I lent to him, but it was worn out. My wife is from just outside Montreal and we live in Saskatchewan. Canada misses you East and West.

I have followed Jesse right from the first album on Ampex - went to see him in Manchester UK on 10th. December 1986 at a club called 'Band on the Wall'. Just Jesse and his guitar - breathtaking! I own every album he's ever made - and a few more.
Jesse is a legend!

Jesse has been a favorite of mine forever. His subjects of love and visions of the south take me back to my boyhood days in Missouri/Illinois. He was in Seattle a few years back doing a solo show, everyone in the audience kept shouting out requests and he stopped everyone with a hand in the air and said, "You're confusin' me."

I first saw Jesse in Montreal,Quebec back in 1975 at the Yellow Door Coffee House with my wife to be. As the evening progressed he pulled at a bottle of Southern Comfort and got even more mellow. (I was was sitting six feet away from him). The music poured out. We all sang..... "Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt, You Can't Stand Up alone Alone, Laisse Les Bon Temps Rouler and on and on.....". What a feeling. Seen a lot of concerts since, big and small but that one was priceless. I watched him drive away in his Volvo at the end of show and wondered if he made it home. Guess he did. Found out later that he lived in my neighborhood in a working class duplex in westside Montreal. Shoulda knocked on his door to say howdy or sumpin'. Mr. were (are are) a class act. THANK YOU. Saw him in Victoria, B.C. some years ago where I live nearby. He was billed then as the "Rhumba Man". My heart sings....maybe I'll see you in ol' Virginy one day. Best from Cobble Hill, B.C.

He's a draft dodging coward, in my opinion. He has no right to rant against Bush or anyone else for making tough choices. Oh, and his music lacks any real substance.

Jesse, It was an honor to know you and have you live among us as long as you did. Your music speaks for itself, and it speaks strongly. So much of it speaks of the passage of my life.
You've returned home and I trust you're at peace with that. Be patient with those who revile you and rest easy in your own strength.
Those of us you've touched will continue to await the next song.
Max McLaughlin, once of Montreal, now of Smithers BC

good concise interview. i enjoyed the o'kanes' version of jesse's "isn't that so" a few years back. great songwriter but i think his politics are misguided -- not untypical for his profession. i wouldn't call him a coward as a previous poster did, but i could never leave my country for the reasons he did. he does have some regrets though. he seems a little wiser with age about some things, but not with others. i was disappointed to see the cliched bush-bashing. why must we keep blaming that man for EVERYTHING? it's narrow-minded and inaccurate, precisely the kind of thing jesse and others of his political orientation supposedly abhor.

I am also a draft dodger. The thought of killing a human being repulses me. So glad you're still with us Jesse, and thanks for getting me through those rough rapids. Most beautiful song ever?.....Bowling Green.

"why must we keep blaming that man for EVERYTHING?"

This is what happens when you are the worst ever at your job. When you're the most obvious puppet for the big boys. Tends to resonate for a while. Basically, I'm saying your side of the political spectrum can wear it now for awhile. We're still hearing about Jimmy Carter, aren't we.

Jesse Winchester has the strength of his convictions. A draft dodging coward, eh? Did WWester serve his country in Viet Nam?

This is a wonderful article, showing Mr. Winchester's insight even now - there US a very big difference between Viet Nam and Iraq, a volunteer army and the draft.

"The last time we offended the very people we should have been trying to convince. We called them names, we misbehaved in silly, pointless ways. We don't want to do that again; we don't want to take it out on the soldiers, who are really not to blame for what's happening."

Yes. Exactly.

I would caution those who speak of misguided politics - everyone is entitled to their own view. Even if it's wrong.

Great, insightful interview-thanks much!

I'm not a draft dodger, but I've never been drafted and I think that, given all the knowldege we have of the lies and corruption surrounding the politicians who sent soldiers to die in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it take a real show of stubborn wickedness to criticize Jesse Winchester for wisely choosing not to sacrifice his life in service of war profiteers. G.W. Bush deserves all the criticism he's gotten and more! Sorry that you're upset about the "Bush-Bashing;" it's only that he lied, robbed and is responsible for thousands of deaths, with many of those corpses being American service men and women...

Oh my God. Gary Oelze from the Birchmere just gave me a CD of his. I had never heard him before.
His CD....GENTLEMAN OF LEISURE ....has been in my car constantly playing for 2 weeks. I am so happy.
I have downloaded everything from I tunes into my phone....I LOVE THIS SERENE GIANT OF A SONG WRITER..MUSICIAN....
Thanks, Gary

i've been listening to Jesse since 1976 but have only recently heard that he was a draft dodger - i like his music even more now!

It takes a brave man to stick to his principles in the face of condemnation from virtually a whole country, contrary to WWester's extremely narrow opinion as to Jesse being a coward!

As for defending George W, i am astounded at your lack of knowledge on the subject ...