Almost from the beginning, George Winston has built albums around seasonal or geographic themes. It started in 1980 with his second album, “Autumn,” included “Winter Into Spring” and “December,” both from 1982, “Summer” from 1991 and 1994’s “Forest.”
His new album, “Plains,” is no exception, but it’s also autobiographical, evoking his childhood on the wide-open spaces of eastern and central Montana.
Most of the music is what you’d expect: a mix of western Americana, seemingly ready-made for the score to a Ken Burns documentary on prairie life. There’s traditional material and tunes from Montana composer Philip Aaberg, Garth Brooks songwriter Tony Arata, guitarist Chet Atkins and Winston himself.
The surprises--at least in terms of the titular theme--are a tune from Italian mandolinist Massimo Gatti and a handful of numbers from the Hawaiian slack-key guitar tradition, which Winston plays on piano. On a limited-edition release of the CD, Winston plays a pair of the Hawaiian tunes on guitar.
“I discovered slack-key around 1974 or ’75,” he said. “I knew there was a lot I was missing in music and I just kept looking everywhere, at all kinds of music, until I found it.”
Winston is adamant about distinguishing slack-key guitar music--the simple, or “slack,” tuning of the Spanish guitar brought to Hawaii a century ago by Spanish and Mexican cowboys--from Hawaiian steel guitar, the indigenous island music most mainlanders know.
"[Slack key] is a single finger-picked style of guitar,” he said. “It’s completely different than the steel guitar, as different as country music is from bluegrass. It’s more like folk and blues music, old-time country music, and it has something that I never got from any other tradition.”
The tropical climes of Hawaii may seem a long way from the windy plains of Montana, yet Winston is undoubtedly slack-key music’s most dedicated champion in the recording business. His Dancing Cat record label, a subsidiary of the Windham Hill label he records for, has released 25 recordings from 14 slack-key artists in recent years, and Winston says the music touches something in his roots.
“It was Windham Hill’s idea to put the guitar tunes on the end of the recording,” Winston said from his home in Santa Cruz. “And the more I listened to them over time, they seemed to fit with the record. And the Hawaiian tunes I did on piano, I just felt like playing them. It didn’t surprise me that they fit in.”
For Winston, who plays tonight at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, there’s no science to the way he chooses the songs he records.
“I really don’t know how it works. It just kind of is,” he said. “The feel of the music is the deciding thing. Involuntarily, certain tunes make me feel certain things. It’s like a doing a soundtrack, except you don’t have the film to give you the images.”
Winston was born in Michigan but grew up in the Montana towns of Miles City and Billings.
“I tour Montana every two years, do some 12 or 13 cities all over the state,” he said, “so the album reflects my past and my present relationship with Montana.
“The plains are not like the western, mountainous part of the state that’s represented in [his album] ‘Forest.’ ‘Forest’ is darker, more lush, I guess, more like the colors of November. ‘Plains’ is more spare, brighter.”
And, one could add, just as melancholy, some of which stems from “No Ke Ano Ahiahi (In the Evening Time)” a traditional slack-key number and the first piece of Hawaiian music that caught Winston’s ear 25 years ago.
The other tradition that permeates Winston’s music is that of stride piano and the New Orleans R&B; of pianist Professor Longhair. (In the past, Winston has followed his Southern California appearances with late-night stride-piano concerts featuring himself and others, something scheduling doesn’t allow this time around.)
He also cites such jazz and pop influences as Booker T. & the MGs, Nashville pianist Floyd Cramer and surf-rock band the Ventures. Pianist Vince Guaraldi is a particular favorite, evidenced by Winston’s 1996 tribute recording “Linus and Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi.”
Those are some of the influences he expects to tap for a future album focusing on dance and R&B; tunes.
“My albums have definitely had rural themes,” he said. “That’s pretty much where I’m coming from. The R&B; material will take care of the urban side.”
George Winston plays at 8 p.m. today at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. $25-$40. (800) 300-4345.