Almost Country: Jesse Winchester’s ‘Mississippi, You’re On My Mind’
It was in the mid 1970’s and I was a fresh faced kid of about 19 or 20 and working in my first radio job at KWYR in Winner, South Dakota. We were what was called back in those days a ‘Middle Of The Road’ station, one that played (depending on the time of day) everything from George Jones to the Carpenters to Percy Faith to Andy Williams.
Maybe we weren’t ‘middle of the road’, maybe we were ‘all over the road’.
And I loved it. Well, maybe at 19 years old I didn’t love it so much, but now all these years later and looking back, all that variety of music gave me something of a foundation in knowing a lot of different artist’s and music styles.
The other cool thing was, even in the small radio stations, we would get tons of free records, 45’s (if you’re too young to know what a 45 is, ask your Mom or Dad) and albums. A lot of the albums were by artist’s that were unknown at the time and are still largely unknown today. But that didn’t mean they weren’t good, it just meant that the ‘experts’ at the big city radio station’s wouldn’t play them if they didn’t have names like Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Conway Twitty or Charley Pride (depending on what kind of music they played).
And it’s still that way, to a large extent. And that’s why it’s so hard for a new artist to get played and gain recognition. Even if they’re good.
Anyway, back there in those days we called the mid 1970’s, a record came across my desk at KWYR by a guy named Jesse Winchester. The song was ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind’ and I played it over and over…oh, not on the radio station, but on my fancy $200.00 Hi-Fi stereo. I just knew Jesse Winchester would become a major star, for sure in country music, and probably in pop music, too!
I had, oh I don’t know, three or four Jesse Winchester albums and loved them all. But as it turned out, Jesse Winchester didn’t top the chart with single after single. But what he did do was write great songs, songs recorded by everyone from George Strait to Joan Baez, from Anne Murray to the Everly Brothers to Jimmy Buffett to Wynonna Judd.
In other words, Jesse Winchester was (and is) a great songwriter. And I’ve always loved the great songwriters. And for me, it all began in south central South Dakota, in a little town called Winner, at a radio station nearly 40 years ago.
And the song I fell in love with for it’s plaintive beautiful style and words was ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind’. Give it a listen below.
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UPDATE: April 11, 2014
Songwriter Jesse Winchester, who had a number of songs recorded by country stars like ACM Entertainer of the Year George Strait and the Everly Brothers, died on Friday (April 11).
Although several reports prematurely announced his death on Monday (April 7), the singer was not dead at that point — but was very gravely ill. Soon after, the inspirational songwriter passed away at his home in Charlottesville, Va., according to his wife, Cindy Winchester, as reported by the Commercial Appeal.
Winchester drew critical acclaim for his songs. His tunes were covered by so many well-loved artists, including Joan Baez, Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, and Stoney Edwards. The song ‘A Showman’s Life’ was recorded by Strait, Gary Allan, and Buddy Miller, among others. Fans will find Strait’s version with Faith Hill on the ‘Here for a Good Time’ album.
Also known for his top hits, ‘Say What’ and ‘Yankee Lady,’ Winchester made a huge impression on country music with his highly touted songwriting and voice that rendered Costello speechless.
While he always considered himself a Memphis, Tenn. man, Winchester spent over 35 years in Canada, having moved there to protest the Vietnam War. He had been drafted, but joined over 100K young Americans in migrating north.
The Louisiana-born songwriter was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2011, after which his friends and fellow artists recorded a collection of songs for his tribute album, ‘Quiet About It.’ The project was spearheaded by Buffett and featured performances by James Taylor, Rosanne Cash, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, and Costello. He survived that first bout of cancer, but in February the cancer returned, this time in his bladder.
Winchester’s final days were spent in hospice care. He is survived by his wife, a brother, Cassius Winchester, and a sister, Ellyn Weeks, as well as his children, James, Alice, and Marcus Lee. He also has, a stepdaughter, Jennifer Slangerup, and five grandchildren.