George Winston grew up in Miles City, a small town in eastern Montana where people lacked television and used trains as their main method of travel.
Seasons framed life in the rural north. Summers meant swimming; fall, jumping in leaves.
The rural upbringing became a major influence on Winston’s career as a pianist. Beginning with 1980’s “Autumn,” he recorded several albums that centered on the seasons that figured so prominently in his childhood. They reflected a style he called rural folk piano, simple and melodic playing that he likens to the finger picking of a folk guitarist.
New Orleans’ great R&B pianists, such as Professor Longhair and James Booker, also influenced Winston. His latest release, “2012’s Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions 2,” reflects his love for the region and its music.
Although he continues to record, Winston’s focus is live performance. He is scheduled to play Sunday at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Casper.
Winston spoke with the Star-Tribune ahead of the concert. He discussed his Montana childhood, folk piano and his upcoming release, which will serve as a cancer benefit.
You were raised in Montana. What do you recall about growing up in a rural setting?
The season were so extremely distinct up there. That frames everything I do and listen to. Any song I'm working on, without thinking about it, it's a season song.
Why are seasons so important to your work?
There were distinct ways of living in the north. Like if you were a farmer, maybe you would be very oriented that way. "I have to plant by this time, I have to harvest by this time." … It very much framed the way of living for everyone. And it just went into the music. That is just how things are.
Later my dad was transferred to Mississippi. Winter is very subtle there, but summer is extreme. And that was good, too … I loved it all. It was great to have all of that. For wherever we grow up, that's your framework.
You describe your musical style as rural folk piano. What does that mean? What is it about the composition or the sound that makes it rural?
Simple, staying in the scale … usually medium or slow tempo. Have a "ring out" sound. The piano is a basically a percussion instrument. You strike the instrument. It was like the folk music things I had heard. That’s in essence what occurred to me. I had heard folk guitars … It was a similar approach, but not guitar or singing.
My father played your season records when I was a kid. I was surprised when I later discovered your R&B piano music. How did you arrive at two different styles?
That appealed to me. Having the melodic slower (style) and then the up-tempo. The summer -- New Orleans rhythm and blues and the stride piano were very much up-tempo. The heat rising off the pavement.
You switched from organ to piano in '71. That seemed like a decision to embrace an instrument where there was less opportunity for commercial success. Did you consider that at the time?
I never thought of it at all. I still never do. It’s just all about the music.
I never considered it at all. It was just: what music do I want to do? That was the only consideration.
Your latest release, "Gulf Coast Blues and Impressions 2," raised money for the Gulf area wetlands after the 2010 oil spill. What was it about that event that inspired you to record a benefit album? (Winston also released a benefit album in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.)
I’ve gotten so much from New Orleans and I’ve been involved in New Orleans music. What can I do to help? I’m not a carpenter. I can do benefit records, helping that way.
They just came natural because I was involved in music from that region. I wanted to help. So much of my inspiration comes from that area.
Any new releases on the horizon?
The next one ... is called “Spring Carousel Cancer Relief Benefit.” Most of the songs are recorded for that. That will be out in 2015, most likely. Everything has got to be there, or I will postpone it for years. Even for a great cause. The music has to tell me.