MICKEY NEWBURY: songs from the soul
by Norman Warwick
The interview I conducted three decades ago with Mickey Newbury, writer of great songs, at York Barbican felt spell-binding and revealing to me. I therefore reproduce here the article I published subsequently in Sidetracks, my magazine that became Detour, owned and edited by David Deverson. I have since re-launched my magazine as Sidetracks And Detours daily not for profit blog
Anyone who still doubts that Elvis Presley (left) really was The King should take a look at the endless list of great songwriters who shamelessly pitched material in Presley´s direction, knowing that anything he decided to record would become heard far and wide and would very probably also become a source of regular royalties. How ironic then that for one such writer on my playlists having Elvis cover one of his compositions would become more of a millstone around his neck than a milestone in his career. American Trilogy gave Elvis a massive, career-reviving hit that also became a fixture in his live performances, with the song and late singer remaining indelibly associated.
For its writer, Mickey Newbury (right) , however, American Trilogy had been a one off project, totally untypical of the rest of his catalogue.
Indeed, although credited as its composer Newbury was happy to relate that what he had actually done was collate three ´traditional´ American songs (belonging in the public domain) into the massive ballad now so familiar to us all. The staggering success of Presley´s recording could not lessen the writer´s resolve to continue composing material in his own uniquely sensitive style.
Newbury had been around a while, listening to Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt and that music mogul and public alike exhorted him to transpose other American classics such as Shenendoah mattered little to him. He would keep on keeping on.
Born in Houston, Texas (May 18th 1940) Newbury joined the air force in his teens, only to be promptly transferred to a UK air base. Following this four year stint he went working on the shrimp boats at Galveston. Although he had learned to strum three or four chords as a child, his guitar playing had been ignored during his spell in uniform, and it was doodling on the piano ín some shrimpers´ bar´ that re-awakened his love of music. By his mid-twenties Mickey was ready to try his hand at song writing and moved to Nashville, where he almost immediately began to display his amazing talent for writing, with equal facility in almost any musical genre.
Each of those genres were given their own sales charts in those days and at one time Mickey Newbury took four different songs simultaneously into the charts for R and B, Country, Easy Listening and Pop. Little wonder, then, that artists as diverse as Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Lyn Anderson and Kenny Rogers as well as Andy Williams (left) were amongst countless singers covering his work.
He made albums of his own, but despìte having what I rate as one of the truest, and most accurate voices in country music, he made little impact with the either the RCA or Mercury record labels until the eventual re-packaging of the It Looks Like Rain album became something of a collectors´ item. Even after Presley´s 1972 hit with American Trilogy, Newbury continued throughout the decade to release albums not only to critical acclaim but also, sadly, to public indifference.
In those early months in Nashville, despite his publishing deal with Acuff-Rose, home was literally the back of his 1949 Pontiac, until his songs earned success through recordings by others.
Don Gibson (right) scored with Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings, as later would Tom Jones in the UK. Another composition from this period was not only a massive success at the time but so also was I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In. In fact, the song become a perennial novelty song, (as almost every year since, it has been included on one compilation album or another), when recorded by Kenny Rogers And The First Edition.
Later compositions would also become country standards such as San Francisco Mabel Joy and She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye, though for me Newbury’s own renditions will always remain the definitive recordings. There were further recordings on the Elektra label with Live At Montezuma Hall perfectly illustrating that he deserved fame as a performer as well a writer. His remarkable off the wall banter with the audience oddly counterpoints a collection of what Johnny Cash sang of as ‘Newbury pain songs’ in The Highwaymen recording of Songs That Made A Difference. Here Cash places Mickey Newbury in the illustrious company of Steve Goodman, Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan as their generations’ most important commentators.
Newbury has, since his military days, visited Britain only infrequently and sadly a music tour scheduled in 1992 had to be cancelled due to a family bereavement. I had a feeling then that my last chance to see Mickey Newbury in concert was gone, but some time later, Wally Whyton, on his BBC Radio 2 country music programme made an important announcement about a forthcoming visit to the UK by Don Williams (left) . The support act on this tour, listed on all its pre-publicity simply as ´plus support´, was to be none other than Mickey Newbury!
Whyton even spoke to Williams via a trans-Atlantic phone link and Williams sounded excited, as only he can (!?) at the prospects for the trip and was effusive in his praise of the pure talent known as Mickey Newbury.
I thankfully caught the first leg of this tour, for I always held great respect for Newbury´s writing and vocal abilities. However, I was also greatly intrigued to hear not only whether he had new material, but also how he might re-tread his earlier paths.
Some years previously, on an independent label, in what was then a daring and innovative move, Newbury had taken some of his best loved songs like Cortelia Clark and San Francisco Mabel Joy and re-laid them in a spacious, ethereal bed of new-age music that elevated, for me, both the musical format and even his songs. Mickey Newbury ´´music even today still reminds us of the the fearless musical pioneer he always was.
But with the indifference and disrespect too often typical of a British country audience his five song set was met with scarcely polite applause. Sitting bathed in a single-spot, his all black clothing merging into the surrounding darkness, his voice soared achingly across the void, – and I cried again, as I had for years years, – over San Francisco Mabel Joy !
During the interval Mickey signed autographs and posed for photographs with the relatively few fans in this mainstream audience who seemed to know, or even care, who Mickey Newbury was. As the P.A. announced that Mr Williams was about to take the stage everybody slipped back into the hall to mindlessly clap along to Don´s easy listening interpretations of great writers like Patrick Alger. To be honest, Williams himself has written some good songs and has even brought country music to a wider audience, but Mickey Newbury, the genius, was pretty much ignored. Sometimes I despair.
Meanwhile, warning us it was all to remain off the record, Mickey Newbury held myself and Ian Johnson, from Stampede Promotions and our pal ´ ´´Record Store Joe´ enthralled with affectionate stories about friends such as Steve Goodman (right), Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt. This conversation traced the roots of country music all the way back to the chain gang and press gang chants that were the songs that formed the basis of American and British folk music. This music touched on the lot of the Native American and the changing states of society over the centuries.
After over an hour of the four of us trying to define ´the perfect song ´(the names of Townes, Stephen Foster and even Cat Stevens being frequently mentioned), Mickey invited me and Ian back to his dressing room for what I hoped might be a more formal interview on the record.
It had been over twenty years since his best songs had emerged, almost immediately after which he entirely quit performing, and to all intents and purpose quit recording too. How had Mickey Newbury and those songs changed since then, I asked him.
´Great question. You can take petals off a rose, let them dry put and then put them in a bowl to create a fragrance in a room. So, like that rose, a song can change and yet remain the same. Is that too vague? Everyone grows and everyone changes. We remain basically who we are but hopefully we learn a little bit along the way about how to control who we are.
´However, one of the problems I have with my most staunch fans, is that they think I must have answers simply because I have questions. Like in Saint Cecelia,..
Crying ´I´m unfeeling,´ she turned into her shell.
I said ´how can I be Jesus, I´ve just begun myself
to find my own way back?
At times, I think I know me well.´
Or I could have said I think I know you well. Everybody says I think this is true or I know that is true. But what I´m saying there, is three or four things at the same time.
´I think I know me well.´
But at other times a stranger is standing where my body fell.
´Blessed be the heavenly, to hell with all the rest
Her salvation is her virtue
But her sin is her emptiness.´
Because if you avoid the world, and avoid facing yourself, then what virtue is there in that?´
So does he learn something about Mickey Newbury, I wonder, with every song he writes?
´Absolutely. My song is my priest and my psychiatrist, always has been. I used to write a song and think it was completed. Now I know a song is never completed.´
´I write spontaneously, Norman, and you´re a writer, so you know what I´m talking about, that things come out of the subconscious mind that are infinitely better than what comes out of the conscious mind, which only retains 15% of its input anyway. There are several layers of sub-consciousness for greater powers. You know you can try to explain this to someone but there is no way in hell you can make them understand. It´s like I can take this fully lit cigarette and stub it out against the tips of my fingers (he does so as we watch and wonder when he will start screaming!) and you ask ´is it hot?´ or you think I must have control of my mind over matter. Nope, I don´t have that control but I have played guitar almost all my life and my body, in self-defence, has built up dead tissue on the pads of my fingers, which we call calluses, so I don´t feel that cigarette. Now the same thing can happen to you spiritually or emotionally. You can choose to build up those calluses to keep from feeling pain, but the trouble is then that you don´t feel anything at all, so you have to make a choice. Do I feel the pain and peel away the calluses, or do I leave them, to protect me from the pain? Writing songs is like peeling off all that hardened skin.
Newbury went on to explain, in stream of consciousness fashion, about the spirit world, the energy of sound waves and civilisations in the world of space and of how songwriters have to tap on to such intelligence-carrying radio frequencies, in a convoluted dialogue that seemed to echo John Stewart´s assertion that all songwriters are ´radio receivers´ who simply transmit the songs they receive.
´Its amazing how many times I´ve met with writers with whom I have had no previous contact, only to discover we have been writing on the same subjects. Whether this is because of some input or forces external, I don´t know. However, I would believe in those external forces because we know of early or remote civilisations who had no awareness of or contact with each other who nevertheless produced similar arts.´
This talk seems to simultaneously remind both Ian and Mickey of one of Newbury´s songs called Bless Us All, off the Dusty Tracks collection, and somewhat disconcertingly given the nature of the conversation, they begin to recite its lines in unrehearsed unison.
´Blessed dreamers, always searching,
their eyes wide open, seeking an answer,
huddled with their backs turned on the others,
their gain is their loss for now they have no questions.´
So, via a somewhat circuitous route, Mickey Newbury has returned us to his opening thought that songs are not answers but are questions. I ask him what then is the ´obligation´ of a songwriter.
´The duty of a songwriter is first of all to rid himself of whatever is inside, because the process of song writing is a catharsis. He is forced to be a songwriter for himself. Now, if he writes something that goes against his grain, because if he sees his image as something other than what he is then he is not able to admit what he is, which all of us are afraid to try.´
´So he will reject things. It´s like leaving food in a refrigerator which gets old and spoils everything else in there. So, you write everything you feel inside you and then you analyse it to see whether it is of positive or negative nature. The songwriter´s obligation then is the intellectual one of determining whether the song he has written will help someone or hurt someone. Now, I wrote a suicide song one time, and it was a great song,…but it made my mother cry so I promised her that it would never be heard and I would just forget it, even though it was a great song…. And I can´t, I won´t, remember it and I haven´t played it to this day.´
Mickey Newbury, black clothed, grey haired and pale faced, with a body that ´carries the reminders of every blow that laid him down´ is convinced he has pneumonia, yet remains fiery and vibrant, and few interviewees have ever given such insightful and provocative responses to my questions. So, as the Don Williams encores fade away, and the tour bus driver revs impatiently on the pedal, we draw the interview to a conclusion with me asking whether he applies all this criteria to his current song-writing.
´Absolutely. I´ve been writing all these years, even since I retired in a way, until I was ready to start performing again, because the only way my songs are going to be heard is if I perform them, because they´re too long for others and not commercial.´
Fearful that one of his real heroes may never record again Ian Johnson seeks reassurance that there is a recording deal on the horizon. He breathes a sigh of relief at Newbury´s twinkle-eyed, nudge nudge affirmation.
´Yeah,… and I´ve got nine years of songs ready. I´m probably better prepared than I ever was.´
Ian closed the conversation by asking just why, apparently so abruptly, had Mickey ´retired´ from the music industry eighteen years earlier?
´To raise my children properly. All my friends who stayed in the business screwed up one way or another, and being a songwriter, family man and father don´t mix. Now my kids are nearly all grown I´m proud of them and I´m ready to go again.´
In my opinion, he wrote some of the saddest songs we´ve heard, and yet their effect on the listener can be oddly uplifting,…. Cortelia Clark, San Francisco Mabel Joy and so many others, are songs of integrity.
Nevertheless, I had to ask this man, who had chain-smoked throughout the interview, how he copes with the pain he must undergo in writing them. His writing is so searching, his questions so unanswerable at times, that his heart must surely break each time he writes a new song. When I said this he looked me unflinchingly in the eye and as he began to answer he very slowly and deliberately stubbed out his umpteenth cigarette on to the pad of his thumb. I blinked first, and looked away and asked how the hellñ he could do that. He went on to show us his thumb, concrete hard. This, he explained, was from decades of daily playing and practicing on his guitar. Whereas, in his early days, his thumb would often chafe and bleed after hours of strumming, over the years it built up a scaly protection until the pain of practicing became bearable. We were left to assume that he had built up a similar protection around his heart when writing thos songs from his soul.
Sadly, though, the tremendously exciting prospect of him recording new material never came to fruition because Mickey died only six months after sounding so confident about the future.
Nevertheless, a whole constellation of country music´s star interpreters have since taken the opportunity to acknowledge the debt country music owes him and the likes of Gretchen Peters, herself the wonderful writer of Bus To St, Cloud, have covered Mickey´s songs even since his death.. So those readers unfamiliar with his work, steel yourselves to listen to something that although at first you might not recognise as ´country´ (or Americana) you will quickly realise that Mickey Newbury wrote across the past, present and future of Americana music.
However, other than the man himself, the finest interpreter I have heard of what Willie Nelson called, in one of his own compositions,´ Newbury pain-songs. is a lady Kasey Jones. She took on Mickey´s songs and recorded them in a husky, jazzy, bluesy voice and adopted as her own some of his greatest songs from the soul. Her 2006 self-released album in tribute to Mickey newbury was very positively reviewed by David McPherson in American Standard Time.
With a voice that wavers with eternal beauty from a bygone era, Kacey Jones uses her powerful pipes to pay homage to her favorite songwriter, and one of America’s greats: Mickey Newbury.
While Jones is best known as a comedienne and has a gift for making people laugh, she also has a sensitive side. Her 15 renditions of Newbury’s songs here are sure to make you cry with their sorrow. Newbury was a legendary Nashville songwriter, and Jones helps preserve the late songsmith’s memory. The disc opens with the tender “Song of Sorrow” and from this blissful beginning Jones takes the listener on a journey of Newbury’s poetic nuances as her delicate delivery gives one time to soak in each and every word of this gifted songwriter, while concurrently admiring Jones’ vocals.
Newbury’s songs possess a soul that comes alive when the words are sung, and luckily for music lovers, Jones’ tribute captures this soul and ensures it stays alive just a wee bit longer. From the tender “Lie to Me Darlin'” to the touching and dreamy “Goodnight,” the passionate poems Newbury created are recreated by Jones with the same drips of soul to ensure they are not forgotten and remain an integral part of the American songbook.
The primary source for this article was an exclusive interview by Sidetracks And Detours written by Norman Warwick and an album review by David McPherson and published in American Standard Time.
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This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve Bewick, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Four.
As a published author and poet Norman was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (for which he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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