‘Winter Into Spring’

Victoria O’Brien
Desert Island Dispatch

Last Friday, I dropped by the office and met up with Lisa Kunkel, who shoots photos for the paper and had, that morning, asked if I would be around. After some private hemming and hawing (it snowed, I had chores to do, the dog was sleeping and we hadn’t had much time together lately), I said yes, got myself cleaned up, and went in to see what was up.

When we met, Lisa handed me a record: George Winston’s “Winter Into Spring.”

“What is this?” I asked, confused.

“I read your article a couple weeks ago,” she explained, referring to this column. “I was going to write in, but I thought this would be nicer.

“This is your first winter in Wyoming, so I wanted to share something that fit,” she explained. “I’m a winter baby, so I’m biased, but you’re probably ready for it to be over. Spring here is so beautiful and I’m so excited for you to experience it. You’re going to love it.”

I ended up listening to Winston’s album the next day with my morning coffee and it’s beautiful. “Spring Into Winter” is a neoclassical album of solo piano compositions that reflects the gradual changing of the seasons — at once, it’s sparkling and dramatic, vibrant and playful, then, at turns, somber and reflective. It lingers, providing space and atmosphere, and it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine the scenes Wilson sets: winter winds, rainy days, blooming meadows, starry skies.

George Winston III was an American pianist born in Michigan and raised in Montana. At 16, he became interested in Vince Guaraldi’s work after watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and bought the album. Several years later, he fell in love with The Doors and learned to play the organ, then moved to the acoustic piano after experiencing the music of Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller. His albums “Autumn” and “Winter Into Spring” resulted in unprecedented success and gave Winston an outsized influence in contemporary classical music. Some call him the Godfather of New Age Piano, but Wilson eschewed that label, preferring to call his style of playing “rural Folk piano.”

I recently had a conversation with a friend, who rather kindly pointed out that, despite the path I’ve carved out in my life so far and the places I’ve been and lived, I’m a country girl at heart and those values remain. I lack pretensions, accept people as they are, and work hard. I don’t say this to toot my own horn or make an unnecessary digression, but because it’s such humility and kindness are, I’ve noticed, common attributes among countryfolk, regardless of origin, and it’s clearly true of Winston. There is no ego to his artistry. He plays the music he wants to hear and tells a story with it, and his audience, sensing that authenticity, connects with it.

In doing research on his life and music, I learned Winston would donate the proceeds of the CDs he sold at concerts to local food banks and his audiences were encouraged to bring non-perishable items to his shows, which were then donated to those same food banks. He also released several benefit albums with all proceeds going toward charitable causes such as the 9/11 Memorial Fund, cancer research, and Louisiana wetlands rehabilitation efforts. 

For all the triumphs in his career and how prolific he proved himself to be, I’m really endeared by his sense of doing what’s right and helping others. It’s easy to lose yourself in success and accolades, but finding an anchor in the land you call home and remembering not just where you came from, but why you started is key. Winston, despite the titles and awards, said his happiest and greatest accomplishment was a tribute album to Guaraldi, his boyhood inspiration.

Listening “Winter Into Spring” again, as I finish writing this column, on a sunny day that heralds a false spring to come, I’m thinking about the false springs of my girlhood, the daffodils budding in the garden, and the promise of so many things to come. Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos (‘return home’) and algos (‘pain’), so we might say that to be nostalgic is to bear the pain of knowing a place to which we cannot return. But that, I think, simply means we loved it.

Is there a piece of art you love? Email it to me at desertislanddispatch@gmail.com.