Ernie Winfrey, who was a damn nice guy, died in May. And it was a great loss to Music City, which was his hometown. Back at the beginning of 2011, Ernie, facing up to his mortality, asked me to write an obituary for him. "I don't want it to be anything like anyone else's," he said, as he forked a sausage biscuit into his mouth at the old Sylvan Park Melrose restaurant where a Mexican restaurant now stands. I wrote one for him, but he said at the time that it wasn't what he was thinking of. I declined the money he offered to pay me, and we remained friends. Since he didn't want this to run as his obituary, I didn't run it at the time of his death. I think the main thing he didn't like was my reference to his teenage band nickname "Barf." In my first draft, I expounded on that, because his telling kept me rolling in laughter when we sat in the Sound Shop control room. Anyway, I do not include that explanation in this story I'm publishing three months after he died. I really loved Ernie. We all did. Even if they did call him Barf.
Here is the obituary I wrote in 2011. RIP Ernie. You were a damn nice guy.
Ernie Winfrey wasn’t really worried about this day.
“Nah,” he’d say. “But I’m not looking forward to it either.”
“I just want people to know that I lived, I tried to treat people right and that I had a good time,” said Ernie, looking over a cup of coffee at a meat-and-three restaurant in the city he’s called home since his March 27, 1942, birth.
Ernie, who lived until his death in the Inglewood house where he was raised, is best known as one of Nashville’s best sound engineers, working for everyone from Paul McCartney to Slim Harpo to Dolly Parton and Doc and Merle Watson during a career spent at the legendary Woodland Studios and the Sound Shop.
“I always loved music and how it all went together,” he said, explaining how he came to spend so much of his life in the control room. “I loved how the instruments went together, how one instrument would complement another.
“Man, for me to sit down and take all those instruments that were in the studio and record them on tape and remix them into a powerful piece of finished music was very satisfying to me.
“It was almost like building a house you would be proud of,” he said.
It never took a lot of coaxing to get Ernie to talk about Paul McCartney.
“I was crazy about The Beatles. We all were,” he said, speaking as musician, engineer and fan.
For two full weeks in the sizzling summer of July 1974, he worked as engineer on McCartney’s now-storied “Nashville Sessions.”
The former Beatle, wife Linda and Wings, came to Middle Tennessee to relax at Curly Putman’s Wilson County farm as well as rehearse for what would be the Wings Across America spectacular tour a year later.
Late Nashville impresario and tastemaker Buddy Killen was the McCartneys’ unofficial host and, as owner of the Sound Shop, he couldn’t let the opportunity pass.
“Buddy being Buddy, he made sure Paul knew that he had a studio he could use if he decided to record,” says Winfrey, who was known for his rakish leather thrift-shop cap and mustache back in his “big-time” days.
In 2010, just before McCartney returned to Nashville for the first time since those sessions -- this time for a sold-out concert at Bridgestone Arena -- Ernie met this writer at the Sound Shop and reflected on the occurrences of those special days for a story that appeared in The Westview newspaper.
“They came in the back door,” Ernie said, noting the McCartneys and their band walked in during a session. But they didn’t interrupt.
“Paul just waved and he and Linda just sat down and waited until we finished up.
“When we were done, Buddy introduced me. I was shaking like a leaf,” he recalls.
But it went beyond that, as he engineered a passel of songs for the band. Two of the songs were hits for Wings – “Junior’s Farm,” which of course was named for the place the band was staying, and “Sally G.”
Other songs continued to show up on McCartney releases for the next couple of decades.
While that was among his career highlights, there were plenty of other good times and stories told from his days and nights in the studios of Music City.
He also liked to tell tales – sometimes tasteful or otherwise – about his life as a teen-age rocker, first with the Monarchs and then with Charlie McCoy and the Escorts and others.
It was the lifestyle of a rocker and as an engineer who worked with musicians all night long that led to Ernie’s greatest downfall and also his greatest triumph.
His use of alcohol and cocaine led to addictions that began to hurt him personally and professionally in the 1980s.
“I finally realized that I had reached a point where it was destroying my life,” he said. “I was losing work, losing friends, just wasn’t able to function like a human being.
“In 1987, I went to Cumberland Heights for treatment and it worked. Miracle of miracles. And I subsequently have remained clean and sober.
“Of everything I’ve done, that’s the one thing I’m proudest of.”
Then he reached for his cup of coffee and began talking about Tex Ritter … Marty Robbins … Heck, he even recorded Jack Palance.
“I always lived by one principle: To do the best I could at all times, to do work I was proud of.”
And when he was done, he might just tell you one of his riddles or jokes or explain why his teenage bandmates gave him the nickname “Barf.”
He’d kind of like to have this story end that way.