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A Reasonable Amount of Trouble
When Jesse Winchester succumbed to cancer
on April 11, the music world lost one of our greatest songwriters, one of our
most soulful singers, and one of our most quietly powerful performers. He was
an artist who commanded total attention by virtue of his perfectly crafted
lyrics and melodies – there was never a wasted word or note in a Jesse
Winchester’s loss was particularly felt by
Montreal music fans. He was a familiar and popular figure on the folk scene
here beginning soon after he landed at Dorval Airport in 1967 as a Vietnam
War-era draft resistor. Despite an amnesty that would have allowed him to
return to the U.S. in 1977, he continued to live in Montreal and then the
Eastern Townships until 2002 when love and a second marriage brought him back
to the American South he grew up in, and which so influenced his music.
In 2011, Winchester fought a battle with
cancer of the esophagus and seemed to beat it. Returning to the stage a year
later, his singing was as beautifully soulful as ever and his stage presence
was still riveting. And earlier this year he recorded a new album – much sooner
than the one-album-per-decade pace he adopted in 1989 and maintained until
2009. Sadly, while finishing the album, he was diagnosed again with cancer –
this time in the bladder – and died soon after.
Most of the songs on A Reasonable Amount of
Trouble were written in the wake of Winchester’s first bout with cancer and
there seems to be a sense of human mortality to some of them. All That We Have
Is Now, the finely polished gem of a song that opens the album sets the tone. A
love song to his wife Cindy, it’s a message about seizing the moment and living
life to the fullest in the present.
And each of the songs that follow, be they
rock ‘n’ roll tunes like She Makes It Easy Now or Never Forget to Boogie –
another reminder to seize opportunities to enjoy life – or quieter, touching songs
like Every Day I Get the Blues that reflect the sad side of everyday emotions,
is yet another reminder of how perfect a songwriter Winchester was.
A Little Louisiana is the happiest sounding
song on the album. Once again Winchester is advising listeners to live life to
the fullest because who knows what might lie ahead but this time he says it
with an infectious Cajun-flavoured arrangement featuring some wonderful playing
by accordionist Joel Guzman and fiddler Stuart Duncan.
That happiest sounding song is followed by
one of the saddest. Ghosts begins with the image of Winchester at the airport
saying goodbye to his crying mother. Knowing his history, we assume it’s 1967
and he’s on his way to Montreal not knowing if or when he’d ever be allowed to
return home. The CD’s front cover, incidentally, is a drawing of Winchester’s
from 1969 titled Crying Woman and was inspired by the same scene sung about in
that opening verse. By song’s end we understand the ghosts to be both the
people missed and the regrets that come from choices made and roads taken
through life. Ultimately, in Ghosts he longs for the innocent times of youth
before such decisions needed to be made.
Speaking of those innocent times of youth,
A Reasonable Amount of Trouble also includes three masterful covers of classic
rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop tunes from the 1950s and early-‘60s. Winchester’s
versions of Rhythm of the Rain, the Cascades’ 1963 hit, and Devil or Angel, recorded
by the Clovers in 1955, both remain faithful to the originals while still
sounding fresh. And, perhaps best of all, is his utterly irresistible take on
the Del-Vikings’s Whispering Bells.
Winchester’s final album ends with Just So
Much, a beautiful and deeply affecting reflection on faith in God, on love, and
on coming to terms with approaching death. It is a poignant, but somehow
perfect, finale to a brilliant songwriting career.
Winchester’s catalogue includes more than a few albums that will remain timeless classics. A Reasonable Amount of Trouble takes its place among his finest work.