Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Along with Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury is considered one of the country music genre’s most literate and intelligent songwriters. Newbury was among the first country artists to remove himself from the Nashville studio system to write and record songs outside the country music mainstream. He first gained notice as a songwriter for the Acuff-Rose song publishing agency, where his songs were covered by such artists as Don Gibson, Roger Miller, and Kenny Rogers, before initiating a recording career that began unsuccessfully with covers of hits he had written that had been made famous by other performers. He seized control of his career shortly thereafter, however, to write and record albums that are considered among the first country concept albums. These albums feature songs that are linked themati-cally and musically, are often heavily orchestrated, and frequently include sound effects in the manner utilized by George Martin and the Beatles on their seminal rock concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Possessing a rich tenor voice, Newbury was able to imbue his songs’ narratives with a sense of honesty, intelligence, and poignancy. Newbury’s maverick approach to the music industry often is credited with inspiring country music’s outlaw movement of the 1970s, which either launched or resuscitated the careers of such performers as David Allan Coe, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kristofferson. His ability to relate a complete story featuring a variety of moods and introspective characters within the structures of a four- to five-minute song has drawn many comparisons to Van Zandt, Kristofferson, and Tom T. Hall. His ability to expand both the content and form of country music, however, makes such comparisons more limiting than fully explanatory. Perhaps a more fitting comparison would be to pop songwriter and composer Randy Newman, whose ability to write in a wide variety of musical styles and narrative personas more closely resembles Newbury’s legacy.
Newbury was born on May 19, 1940, in Houston, Texas. He absorbed the musical influences rampant in the post-World War II town and honed his skills as a poet. He read his poetry at local coffeehouses prior to joining the musical doo-wop group the Embers, which had a brief recording contract with Mercury Records. He also frequented R&B clubs in Houston, where he earned the nickname “The Little White Wolf” from Texas blues guitarist Gatemouth Brown. In 1959 Newbury entered the U.S. Air Force.
Following his discharge from the Air Force, Newbury moved to Nashville, where he was assisted by a friend in obtaining employment at the famed Acuff-Rose publishing house. It was there that he was befriended by Don Gant, an influential producer and song publisher whom Newbury credited with furthering his career. Newbury also became friends with Kristofferson and Roy Orbison as well as becoming a tireless promoter of fellow songwriters Coe, Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Rodney Crowell. In fact, Newbury is credited with passing Kristofferson’s early masterpiece “Me and Bobby McGee” to Roger Miller, who was the first artist to record the song, which became an enormous posthumous hit for Janis Joplin.
In 1966 Newbury’s songwriting career received a boost when Don Gibson had a hit with the Newbury composition “Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings.” He had further success with the song “Here Comes the Rain, Baby,” recorded by Eddy Arnold, “Sweet Memories,” recorded by Andy Williams, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which was recorded by his high school classmate Kenny Rogers and Rogers’s band, the First Edition, as well as an R&B hit, “Time Is a Thief,” recorded by Solomon Burke. Newbury’s burgeoning popularity led to a record contract with RCA.
In 1968 Newbury released his debut album on RCA, Harlequin Melodies. Featuring several songs—noted for their simple elegance—that Newbury would later rerecord, the album was despised by Newbury for production qualities that he considered excessive. He was able to get out of his contract with RCA, and he negotiated artistic control at Mercury Records. His Mercury
For the Record…
Born on May 19, 1940, in Houston, TX; died on September 28, 2002; married Susan Pack Newbury, 1969; children: Joe Lucher, Christopher Newbury, Stephen Newbury.
Singer in the Embers, 1950s; member of the U.S. Air Force, 1959-63; became member of Nashville publisher Acuff-Rose songwriting staff, 1963; Newbury’s “Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings” recorded by Don Gibson, became hit, 1966; Newbury’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” recorded by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, 1968; released first album, Harlequin Melodies, 1968; signed with Mercury Records, 1969; released Looks Like Rain, 1969; switched to Elektra Records, 1970; earned only top-40 hit, “American Trilogy,” 1971-72; released Nights When I Am Sane, 1994; self-released Lulled by the Moonlight on private Mountain Retreat label.
Awards: Induction, Nashville Songwriter Association’s International Hall of Fame, 1980.
cury debut, Looks Like Rain, Is a landmark of conceptual country music. Recorded on a four-track tape deck in a converted garage owned by recording engineer Wayne Moss, Looks Like Rain is probably the first major-label country release not recorded at a major Nashville studio. The album features such sound effects as train whistles, thunder, rain, and chimes, which color such songs as “San Francisco Mable Joy” and “33rd of August.” Considered the first country music concept album and a masterpiece by pop, folk, country, and rock critics, Looks Like Rain received little support from Mercury and sold poorly.
The lack of success of Looks Like Rain prompted Newbury to switch to Elektra Records in 1970. He used the royalties and profits from his first two Elektra releases, ’Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help the Child, to purchase the rights to Looks Like Rain, which he reissued on Elektra as a double package with the solo-acoustic album Live at Montezuma Hall. He recorded two more albums for Elektra in the 1970s, I Came to Hear the Music and Lovers.
Among the individual songs recorded by Newbury during his tenure with Elektra are such critically admired songs as “Heaven Help the Child,” “Leaving Kentucky,” and “Cortelia Clark.” The song that earned him national recognition and his only hit single, however, was “American Trilogy,” a musical triptych comprising “Dixie,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “All My Trials.” The song was an even bigger hit for Elvis Presley, who also made the song the centerpiece of his live performances. According to Frye Gaillard, quoted from the book Watermelon Wine in an article written by Peter Cooper in The Tennessean, the origins of “American Trilogy” stemmed from a performance at the Bitter End West in Los Angeles in the 1960s. During a conversation with comedian David Steinberg about the perceived redneck qualities of country music and the proportional closed-mindedness of the American counterculture, the two discussed the recent headlines regarding the refusal of blacks in recently integrated Southern high schools to sing “Dixie” as the school fight song. Newbury reportedly played a heartfelt rendition of the song that evening that conveyed another level of meaning. Cooper wrote: “With a gentle strum of his guitar, [Newbury] began to sing the words, ‘Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton.’ But, instead of belting them out in the rebel-yell style that everybody was accustomed to, he plucked the notes slowly on his old guitar, and his voice took on a rich, haunting quality that called up a different set of images—visions not of a mean-spirited South, but of a poignant South, a land caught in the grips of tragedy and suffering for 150 years.” Cooper concluded: “Before the impromptu trilogy was completed, it had become one of the most supercharged events in the history of the Bitter End West. Every other sound in the room had vanished in the emotion of the moment. Odetta, the famous black folk singer, was sitting in the front row with tears in her eyes, and Newbury knew that he had accomplished his purpose and a great deal more.”
Newbury moved to Oregon with his wife, Susan Pack, a former Miss Oregon and one-time member of the folk music group the New Christie Minstrels, a group that had also included Kenny Rogers. Following Lovers, Newbury moved to the ABC/Hickory label in the latter 1970s to record the albums Rusty Tracks, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and The Sailor. While some critics believe these albums evidence Newbury’s waning talent, others staunchly defend the quality of such songs as “Leaving Kentucky” and “The Dragon and the Mouse.” At this point in his career, Newbury abandoned live performances.
He began the following decade on a high note. He marked the beginning of the 1980s with his 1980 induction into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. However, he released only two albums during that period, After All These Years and In a New Age. Neither album generated much interest, perhaps because of Newbury’s refusal to perform his new songs live.
Newbury released two critically acclaimed albums in the 1990s. The first, Nights When I Am Sane, was a document marking his return to live performances, and it is notable also for the fact that he recorded it with guitarist Jack Williams. Previously, Newbury never performed live with a band or musical accompanist, preferring instead to highlight his own singing and guitar playing. The second album, Lulled by the Moonlight, marked the inauguration of Newbury’s record label, Mountain Retreat, which eschewed regular record distribution in favor of a mail-order-only service. He spent the remaining years of his life repackaging his previous albums on Mountain Retreat, which also released his last album of original material, Winter Winds, in 2002.
Newbury’s songbook is a testimony to his groundbreaking talent. While few people remember Newbury’s performances of these songs, many of them recognize them from performances by such diverse artists as the Grateful Dead, Linda Ronstadt, Bill Monroe, Perry Como, Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, and Keith Richards. Following Newbury’s death from emphysema in 2002, Kris Kristofferson told Fred Crafts of the Eugene, Oregon, newspaper The Register-Guard: “To me, he was a songbird . He would do the simplest songs, with simple words, and put them together in such a perfect way that it moved your emotions . I learned more about songwriting from Mickey Newbury than anybody I can think of.”
Harlequin Melodies, RCA, 1968.
Sings His Own, RCA, 1968.
Looks Like Rain, Mercury, 1969; reissued, Mountain Retreat, 1999.
Live at Montezuma Hall (packaged with reissue of Looks Like Rain), Elektra, 1973; reissued, Mountain Retreat, 1999.
’Frisco Mabel Joy, Elektra, 1971; reissued, Mountain Retreat, 2000.
Heaven Help the Child, Elektra, 1973; reissued, Mountain Retreat, 1999.
Live at Montezuma Hall, Elektra, 1973; reissued, Mountain Retreat, 1999.
I Came to Hear the Music, Elektra, 1974; reissued, Mountain Retreat, 1999.
Lovers, Elektra, 1975.
Rusty Tracks, Hickory, 1977.
His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Hickory, 1978.
The Sailor, Hickory, 1979.
After All These Years, Mercury, 1981.
Sweet Memories, MCA, 1988.
In a New Age, Airborne, 1988.
The Best of Mickey Newbury, Curb, 1991.
Nights When I Am Sane, Winter Harvest, 1994.
The Mickey Newbury Collection (8-CD set), Mountain Retreat, 1998.
Live in England, Roadhouse, 1998.
It Might As Well Be the Moon, Mountain Retreat, 1999.
Lulled by the Moonlight, Mountain Retreat, 2000.
Stories from the Silver Moon Cafe, Mountain Retreat, 2000.
A Long Road Home, Mountain Retreat, 2002.
Winter Winds, Mountain Retreat, 2002.
Kingsbury, Paul, editor, The Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Stambler, Irwin, and Landon Grelun, Country Music: The Encyclopedia, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997.
Wolff, Kurt, Country Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, 2000.
The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR), October 1, 2002.
The Tennessean (Nashville, TN), October 3, 2002.
“Mickey Newbury,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (May 21, 2003).
Mickey Newbury Official Website, http://www.mickeynewbury.com (May 21, 2003).
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