An American Troubadour – Mickey Newbury.

It is not always easy to understand why some artists never seem to escape the spotlight, while others never seem to get the attention they really deserve. Of course, we often disagree of the criteria that should be used measuring the contribution of an artist, but in the case of Mickey Newbury he was early widely recognised as a great songwriter, while he in my opinion also are one of the greatest singers. His name was not as well known as his songs, though. Too bad.

Everyone heard a version of “An American Trilogy”, best known in Elvis Presley´s majestic version. Even if the song in many ways are a cover version and a medley, Mickey Newbury was the one who puzzled it together to “An American Trilogy”. A strike of genius. Three songs from the 19th century, all telling a story about America, all telling a story about the Civil War. The first is “Dixie”, the unofficial anthem of the confederacy, the second was originally a bahamian lullaby, “All My Trials”, strongly related to afro american spirituals, the third and last was “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, the marching song of the Union Army. The song was banned in some southern states. For Newbury it was a protest song in many ways, also performed as such, against censorship.

It´s a great composition, but listen to the singer.

Newbury later made a separate version of the beautiful “All My Trials”.

Milton Sims Newbury, Jr. was born in 1940, in Houston, Texas. He sang tenor in The Embers as a teenager, but joined the Air Forces when he was nineteen. After service he followed his dream, to be a songwriter. He moved to Nashville, and in 1966 Don Gibson had a Top Ten Country Hit with the song “Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings”. Tom Jones made it an even greater hit worldwide with his version.

The greatness of Mickey´s talent is shown by the fact that he in 1968 had four Top Five songs on four different charts! This has as far as I know never happened since.

One of the greatest soul singers that ever lived, Solomon Burke, made “Time Is A Thief” a number one hit on the R&B chart.

Kenny Rogers And The First Edition made a funky version of “Just Dropped In (To See What My Condition My Condition Was In) to the Pop/Rock Chart.

The smooth voice of Andy Williams made the beautiful ballad “Sweet Memories” a number one hit on the Easy Listening Chart.

In 1970 the great Ray Charles also made a beautiful version of “Sweet Memories”, one of Newbury´s most covered songs.

Eddy Arnold made “Here Comes The Rain, Baby” a number one hit one the country chart. This song was released first time in 1967, by no less than Roy Orbison.

After this phenomenal start as a songwriter, Newbury got his first record deal with RCA, and made “Harlequin Melodies”. Despite several great songs, the album was over-produced and not a big success. Mickey himself wasn´t satisfied, and he never did look at the album as a worthy debut. Later he always looked at “Looks Like Rain” from 1969 as his true debut. This time on Mercury. And what an album it was! The Newbury magic drizzled the tracks, showing the world both a wonderful mature singer and a great songwriter. The album in all its emotianl nakedness made a great impression on the outlaw movement, especially artists like Waylon Jennings and David Allan Coe.

In 1977, Waylon Jennings mentions Newbury in his song “Luckenback, Texas”, in the same line as Hank Williams. That says a lot about Jennings´assessment of Newbury´s qualities:

“Between Hank Williams´ pain songs and Newbury’s train songs /And Blue Eye’s Crying in the Rain”

While everybody knew Hank Williams, I´m afraid not so many really knew the other name, even if Mickey is one of King Hank´s very worthy successors.

Back to “Looks Like Rain”, – in spite of the beauty of Newbury´s own versions, several of the songs from the album is more known in great cover versions from other artists.

Such as “The 33rd of August”, where the great poet Newbury shines like a diamond.

Well, today there’s no salvation
The band’s packed up and gone
And I’m left standing with my penny in my hand

There’s a big crowd at the station
Where the blind man sings his song
But he sees, Lord, what they can’t understand

It’s the 33rd of August, Lord
And I’m finally coming down
Eight days from Sunday
Finds me Saturday bound”

And such as in the great country song “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye”. As Kris Kristofferson, Newbury transcends the traditional country poetry, and takes it to a higher level.

“Well, mornings come and Lord, my mind is aching
The sunshine standing quietly at my door
Just like the dawn my heart is silently breaking
And with my tears it goes tumbling to the floor”

One of the artists that saw the potential in the song, was the great Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the greatest country singers ever, making a passionate tear jerker of the song.

Even the old second-generation country singers like Hank Snow, acknowledged the much younger artists genius by recording the song.

But Mickey Newbury was just starting. With “Frisco Mabel Joy” in 1971, this time on Elektra, he made his maybe most perfect album – enigmatic, mysterious, passionate, varied – a concept album showing us all sides of loneliness and loss, endless searching for love and happiness. If you should choose one album as a starter, choose this. It´s a masterpiece consisting only masterpieces.

On the list of most heartbreaking songs ever, “How Many Times (Must The Piper Be Paid For His Song)”. That is true, even before you starts listening to the words.

“But from here where I lie I can see
The tears in her eyes as she quietly cries out
For him not for me
How many times must the Piper
be paid for his song’

Her shattered dream
Its like broken glass
Cuttin’ through to her soul”

On the same list there is also a place for “Remember The Good”. Even if he tells us in words that “Heaven knows I’ve learned to live without her”, his voice tells us the opposite.

“San Fransisco Mabel Joy” was not initially included on the album, but later it has been included in some versions. A fantastic song.

Mickey Newbury also made a tribute of his own to all the old songs he loved and was inspired by, in the fabulous and joyful track named “How I Love Them Old Songs”. Johnny Cash knew talent when he saw it, and included Mickey in one of his shows, here presenting Mickey in a very beautiful way.

This was the album where Newbury´s own version of “An American Trilogy” first appeared, and it was an album many artists took to their heart, and there is a long string of cover versions of the songs.

There is even made a complete coveralbum to honour this Newbury highlight, called “Frisco Mabel Joy Revisited”. Among many great cover versions is the norwegian band “Midnight Choir´s” version of “An American Trilogy”.

“Dave Alvin & The Guilty Men” contributes a swinging and twangy version of “Mobile Blue”.

https://open.spotify.com/track/0CicYvA3QsCRDEeQr7mOng

While Bill Frisell makes the mysterious drizzle between the tracks, Kris Kristofferson, one of Newbury´s peers, ends the album with a great version of the “bonus track”, “San Francisco Mabel Joy”. Kris once told us in an interview: “I learned more about songwriting from him than any other writer… He was my hero and still is.” Strong words from a master himself.

https://open.spotify.com/track/0OSm0kfHDeNLRhFcDOcp4i

 

Before Kristofferson´s finale, “The Hole Dozen” gives us a joyful and heartfelt jam of “How I Love Them Old Songs”. Behind the improvised bands name we can find Mark Olson, Victoria Williams, Bob Neuwirth and other friends. A beautiful tribute to Mickey Newbury. I´m sure he liked it a lot.

After “Frisco Mabel Joy” Newbury, from time to time, continued to make great, but unconventional albums, though struggling to find a larger audience. Even under the radar, other artists pointed in his direction both by mentioning him and by covering his great songs. Disillusioned by not getting through, he still continued to make great live performances.

Newbury was invited to participate in TV shows from time, like this great performance in 1992 at the Ralph Emory Show. The interviewer is not so great, but the song is worth it.

In 1996 he released a great collection of new songs, “Lulled By The Moonlight”. This was after he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, an illness he would struggle with the rest of his life. His everlasting exploring of the dark sides of life might have helped him, even though Mickey struggled with depression from time to time. He once told us this: “How many people have listened to my songs and thought, ‘He must have a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a pistol in the other. Well, I don’t. I write my sadness.”

His unique voice, his beautiful poetry and the mysterious sound of his productions was not easy to label, seemingly not easy to play on the radio, but his music lives on forever in beautiful studio recordings and in live albums of unparalleled passion and sadness. Just listen to this performance of “What Will I Do (In The Dead Of The Night)” and I think you will understand what I mean. This is hard to beat.

The sublime recording is from his Live At The Hermitage DVD, also released as  the live album “Winter Winds”. Even if this is the highlight in my opinion, the whole show is worth watching. With tears in your eyes. The release came the year Mickey Newbury died of his struggle with emphysema. It is a magnificent and majestic testament over his unique contribution to the world, both as a singer and songwriter.

His last studio album before he died, was “A Long Road Home”. The title song would be an appropriate ending to a story that never should end, because Mickey Newbury´s poetry and voice should live on forever. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

 

Johnny Borgan

 

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