(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Attention: lovers of great songwriting. Not just of good songwriting. And especially not of songwriting by three or four or five co-writers scribbling on an assembly-line-cobbled-together truck song or beer song for the country radio monster. I mean real songs that are destined to be hall of famers and songs that will live for the ages.
There’s a tribute album of such songs now available on iTunes. It pays honor to singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester. That may be a name you’re not familiar with. But Jesse has written some of the best — not necessarily best-known — but best songs in recent memory. The album is titled Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester.
Winchester, who was born in Bossier City, La., gained some notoriety during the Vietnam War — when the mandatory military draft was still in effect — after he renounced his American citizenship and went to Canada to avoid the draft. I was drafted at about the same time and served in the U.S. military, but that’s neither here nor there. I can understand and respect Jesse’s position. I certainly respect his songwriting.
Not too long ago, Jesse was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which is almost always fatal. He was treated in time and has apparently had a complete recovery. Meanwhile, many of his friends in the music community got together and decided to put together a little tribute record of some of Jesse’s songs that are special to them.
Let’s just talk about some of the songs. “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” has been a personal favorite for years. Lyle Lovett, who has been too absent from the music scene for too long, delivers an achingly sweet version of this modern classic. Lovett has been performing Winchester songs for decades. There’s a mix of the acute pleasure and exquisite pain that this song delivers via Lyle’s very precise, yet passionate vocals that are dueling with a filigreed fiddle accompaniment from the accomplished bow of Luke Bulla.
The ever-engaging Rosanne Cash, who is still singing country music even though she doesn’t realize it or acknowledge it, turns in an endearingly lovely version of his song “Biloxi,” making it seem like an enticing ocean-side sort of bucolic Hawaiian paradise. She sings “We are splashing naked in the water” and, by God, you want to be right there with her, splashing naked in the water. Winchester’s songs have generally had that kind of listener immediate identification — i.e., this song is about me! Or, I should be in that song. Because it’s exactly about what my life should be like.
James Taylor — remember Sweet Baby James? — comes in here with a nice, gently loping version of “Payday.”
The always-dependable group Little Feat were the backing band when Nicolette Larsen had a hit with Winchester’s “Rhumba Man.” Now, the band return to it with their syncopated rhythm to push the song almost beyond its limits, but it makes you want to hear more of it and makes you want to get up and dance. Which not too many songs do anymore these days.
There’s almost an embarrassment of riches here. Allen Toussaint sings “I Wave Bye Bye,” Vince Gill sings “Talk Memphis” and is joined by Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris on “Dangerous Fun.” Elvis Costello offers his vocals on “Quiet About It,” Lucinda Williams sings “Mississippi, You’re on My Mind,” Jimmy Buffett was born to sing “Gentleman of Leisure” and Mac McAnally does “Defying Gravity.”
One voice that is absent is that of the late Levon Helm, who had planned to record a song for the project but passed away before he could.