by: PHOTO COURTESY JOE DEL TUFO - PHOTO COURTESY JOE DEL TUFO Grammy-winner George Winston will play two nights in Hillsboro this month on tour supporting his latest recording, a benefit for New Orleans.Growing up in eastern Montana, George Winston didn’t listen to music until he was 12.

“The whole entertainment was the seasons,” Winston said.

The power of the broad Montana sky captivated Winston, until he finally turned on the radio and discovered the instrumental sounds of Vince Guaraldi and Floyd Cramer.

Then one band’s sound came screaming out of his record player and changed his life forever.

The Doors’ “Break on Through” shattered the quiet silence of his life.

“I heard that in 1967 and I said ‘I’ve got to get an organ and play,’ “ Winston said. “I’d sit in my room and scream for organ like girls screamed for The Beatles.”

But it would be the acoustic piano, not the organ, that would be Winston’s true calling and it would be the seasons of his youth, not the Doors, that would make him an international music sensation.

In 1980, Winston released “Autumn,” a quiet rumination on the season’s warm days and cold nights.

But it was 1982’s “December,” a stirring and ethereal set of solo piano songs that draw images of dark nights and warm Yuletide glow, that hit. The record eventually spent 99 weeks on the billboard charts in 1985 and went platinum.

It was a surprising commercial success in a year when pop like Wham!, Tears for Fears and REO Speedwagon dominated the charts.

Since then, Winston has continued to turn out quiet records that explore his varied musical interests and tour the world playing his favorite songs. On Sept. 20 and 21 Winston will play two nights at the Walters Cultural Arts Center in Hillsboro.

Winston said he was happy to return.

“Hillsboro’s a great hall, a great sounding hall. It’s great to back there,” Winston said.

Helping New Orleans

Winston’s latest record is the second in a series of three records tackling the heritage of New Orleans, sold as fundraisers for relief efforts in the embattled city. The first record in the series, “Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions: A Hurricane Relief Benefit” was released just after the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The second, “Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions 2: A Louisiana Wetlands Benefit” was released this year to raise money for the restoration of the coastline following the calamity of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Talking during a brief break between studio sessions, Winston said the next in the series will likely tackle Hurricane Isaac, which doused the city again, seven years after Katrina’s disastrous toll.

It’s in Winston’s nature to help. Since 1986, he’s donated proceeds from merchandise sold at his concerts to local food banks and service organizations. He’ll do the same in Hillsboro.

But New Orleans, a town that can claim some of the country’s finest piano players like Professor Longhair and Dr. John, is often on Winston’s mind.

“I’ve been listening to New Orleans pianists since 1979,” Winston said.

And the sound of New Orleans R&B bubbles to the surface of Winston’s playing, working as a counterbalance to the quiet “folk piano” that dominates his series of seasonal records.

“There’s one side of the playing, the folk piano, the season stuff and the other side is the rhythm and blues stuff,” Winston said.

Live, he plays a mix of styles, running through his back catalog and occasionally improvising new flourishes to familiar material.

Songs change over time

Winston said all of his songs have slowly morphed over the years as he and the music have aged.

“They change, they kind of slowly change. I give them life or they give me life or all of the above,” Winston said. “But if something doesn’t change, it doesn’t live very long.”

In the same way that he twists his own compositions into new form, Winston also reworks songs other artists have performed.

On his latest record he tackles work by Dr. John. And in 2002, he released a Doors tribute album, “Night Divides the Day: The Music of the Doors,” turning the music of Jim Morrison and company on its head. Winston stretched “Light my Fire” to nearly 10 minutes, taking the song through seasonal phases as indebted to his childhood as “December.”

For Winston, it’s all part of the journey that music has charted for him.

He says inspiration often strikes him as he practices songs.

“Usually I’m practicing songs that are already around and then eventually I’ll veer off and make up something,” Winston said. “Or I’ll just get a thing like, ‘oh, remember this song that doctor john did on this record? Let’s listen to this again and see what to do with it.’ “

But the one song Winston has never been able to put his mark on is the one that inspired him to play in the first place: “Break on Through.”

“That’s the piece of music I’ve had the longest relationship with,” Winston said. “It’s got vocals and sometimes vocal pieces don’t translate to instrumentals, sometimes you just need the words and the singer.”

Winston said he’s been trying to get the song right since he started playing and it’s never quite come together.

“What is it now 45 years, I think. And it’s fun to try,” Winston said. “If it doesn’t work out I’ve got 25 other Doors songs to play.”

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