Winnie Winston
(May 31, 1941-June 12, 2005)


Click picture to hear Mary and Winnie
live at The Cherry Tree in 1995

 

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.

Mary McCaslin
Santa Cruz, CA