WINNIE WINSTON (May 31, 1941 - June 12, 2005)
The first time I met Winnie Winston was in the fall
of 1974. At the time Winnie's brother Rick lived near Plainfield, Vermont
and was running a folk concert series at a local hall. He had set up a
concert for Rosalie Sorrels to play with Winnie, who occasionally accompanied
her (and other artists) on pedal steel. On the day of the show Rosalie
became ill and had to cancel.
Jim Ringer and I were staying at the Philo Records Barn to work on new
recordings. Rick contacted Philo to try to find someone to take Rosalie's
place so that the concert could go on as scheduled, but with a slight
change in the line-up. We ended up getting the gig and the rest, as they
say, is history.
I was recording my Prairie in the Sky album and had decided to include
the country song Pass Me By (If You're Only Passin' Through). I had been
wishing we could find a country pedal steel player to play on that cut.
Jim and I had discussed the fact that we did not know any "real country"
pedal steel players in the northeast. Country-rock pedal steel players
seemed to be everywhere, but real country players weren't commonly found
outside of the places where true country music was played and recorded.
When we agreed to replace Rosalie at the Plainfield concert, we were told
that Winnie Winston was a fine pedal steel player from Philadelphia. Having
both been steeped in country music, Jim and I were skeptical of how country
(or good, for that matter) some guy from Philly could be. We decided to
just wait and see and make the best of it.
We met Winnie at the hall on the afternoon of the show to rehearse. I
didn't mention anything about my recording, and just started into Pass
Me By. By the second half of the first verse Jim and I were looking at
each other in amazement. At the end of the song I said that I was recording
up at Philo and asked if he was available to come up and record a pedal
steel part for that song and maybe some others. This was the beginning
of a long musical relationship and friendship. Winnie played on most of
our subsequent recordings and with us many times on stage.
Only later did we come to realize that he was a lover and scholar of true
country music. And, of course, he went on to write "The Book".
Over two decades a great many musicians learned to play the pedal steel
from Winnie's pedal steel guitar instruction book, which was co-written
by fellow bluegrass banjo-pedal steel player Bill Keith. Whenever I would
happen to mention Winnie's name to a "younger" pedal steel player,
meaning anyone learning to play steel from the mid 1970s on, he was immediately
and reverently referred to as "the guy who wrote The Book".
He attended the annual Pedal Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis and
other regional pedal steel conventions. I remember riding up to Darien,
Connecticut from Philadelphia with him to attend one convention. Lots
of older legendary steel players were there, as well as lots of youngsters.
This boy from Yonkers, New York fit right in with all of them.
From the mid 1970s through the mid `80s Jim Ringer and I regularly played
in west Philadelphia at the Cherry Tree. Winnie would play with us and
we would stay at his increasingly crowded condo a couple miles away. To
say that Winnie had lots of interests would be a grand understatement.
He taught industrial design at the Philadelphia College of the Arts as
his day job, and had a vast knowledge of any number of subjects. Knowing
Winnie, his interests in music, art and design, guns, homeopathy and fast
cars made sense. (His interest in Homeopathic medicine would eventually
take him to New Zealand, where he would become a resident and marry Gwyneth
Evans.) He had items related to all of his interests crammed into every
cubbyhole and stacked on every surface throughout the condo. At times
it was a bit of a problem to find a place to sit, but he always had a
bed and lots of great stories for us. He was truly one of the funniest
people I've ever met.
Winnie was a great banjo player, who had won numerous contests for his
bluegrass playing. What fewer people know is that he was also a phenomenal
clawhammer banjo player. This style is also known as frailing or old time,
and it's the style I play. Early on I discovered his clawhammer abilities
while warming up at his house one afternoon for a show that night. I had
recently begun performing my somewhat unorthodox version of Pinball Wizard,
accompanying myself on the banjo. I started up, frailing away, and the
next thing I knew Winnie was frailing right along with me. Upon this discovery
I never, ever played a show with him without doing clawhammer banjo duets
on Pinball Wizard and Blackbird.
In our living room hangs a wonderful reminder of Winnie Winston. On one
of my first visits to his house in west Philly I happened to notice a
large poster on the wall. I could see that part of it had been used for
the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, but knew nothing about the entire
poster. Winnie explained that it was a poster by an artist named Jo Mora.
Since then, I've learned a lot more about Jo Mora, including the fact
that he lived for many years in the Carmel / Monterey area of California,
about an hour away from where my husband Greg and I now live. This poster
had originally been done for the Salinas Rodeo. Winnie's copy was one
that his parents bought sometime in the 1940s. Last year, in an email,
Winnie said that he had left that poster in Philadelphia. He said he would
have it shipped to me. After we received it we had it framed and put behind
protective glass. I look at the poster every day and it will forever remind
me of a dear friend lost.
Santa Cruz, CA