Gretchen Peters on Finding the Songs of Mickey Newbury — And Herself Along the Way
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gretchen Peters’ new album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, is released today. We asked her to talk about why Newbury resonates so strongly with her, and she decided to address him directly.
When I found you I was a halfhearted college student, a fledgling bar singer, and a closeted country music fan. Country music wasn’t cool in Boulder, Colorado, in the ’70s. A friend who worked at a local record store would go into a back room and emerge with an armful of LPs by Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Johnny Rodriguez, all made in a mythical place called Nashville. I dove in headfirst. I immersed myself in it. I separated the wheat (Don Williams) from the chaff (Dave & Sugar). I wrote down all the lyrics and learned the chords. I can’t tell you exactly why it sang to me, but it did. I was looking for something particular, although at the time I couldn’t have told you what. Now, looking back, I think I was looking for myself.
I found it in Merle Haggard, whose songs were 3-minute Steinbeck novels. I found it in George Jones, whose voice was like an open wound. And I found it in Johnny Rodriguez, too. On a Johnny Rodriguez album, there was always a song or two by you.
I studied the album credits like they were the Rosetta Stone. To this day I can name the names of all the studio musicians, backup singers, and engineers of that time. And the songwriters — all the songwriters. On one of my regular trips to the record shop, where I’d spend most of the $40 I’d made singing in a bar the night before, I asked my Nashville connection about you. He handed me another armful of albums — the cheap ones with a hole punched in the sleeve. They were gold.
I was heading upstream, looking for the headwaters of a river the scope of which I barely comprehended. I traveled without a compass or a map. I went from point to point. I could sense that the tributaries of folk, country, bluegrass, and blues were all part of this same river, but I hadn’t yet begun to think of music as a natural, living thing; hadn’t understood that the same river that connected you to Stephen Foster connected me to you, too. At a time when I was struggling mightily to find my voice, I heard yours.
When you’re trying to find your own identity, you look for boxes you might fit into. You try on a few, but they never really fit. Then, if you’re lucky, you run across someone who threw the boxes away long ago. Someone who hated boxes to begin with. Someone who — let’s be real — paid a certain price to be real. I didn’t know much, but I knew you were someone I needed to know.
Listening to those records I heard an echo of my own restlessness. I heard an itch that needed scratching. Sometimes I thought I heard a spark of anger, a sly middle finger aimed at the establishment on Music Row. I know I heard the kind of empathy that only comes from tending a very deep well of sorrow. When you possess a thing like that, everyone thinks you’re in pain all the time. But it’s not like that at all. That well is where the songs come from, and once they do, it’s not your pain anymore. It belongs to the song. It belongs to the world.
There were your songs, and then there was your voice. Your aching, soaring, other-worldly voice. I never understood how anyone could listen to “An American Trilogy” (and what a poetic irony that your most successful creation was created from songs you didn’t write) sung by anyone else, even Elvis, when your version was so clearly and definitively The One. But then, his was the anthem, and yours was the tragedy; and I guess those of us who find sad songs more stirring than anthems will always be in the minority.
I carried your songs and your voice with me like a talisman through a career where I often felt pressure to recreate something I’d already created. So many people mistake a great success for a reproducible event. So many believe lightning can strike twice. So many for whom the common denominator is money ask “why walk away from a sure thing?” But there are no sure things, and I never walked away from anything. Only toward something else.
I don’t know for a fact that you felt this way too, but I’d bet the farm on it. You weren’t made for the machine. And the machine wasn’t made for you. Not for your beautiful, crazy, over-the-top records, not for your devastatingly sad and gorgeous voice. Nashville had the gift of your songs for a while. But you were only passing through.
I never knew you. But I felt like you knew me. You were a beacon for a young artist trying to make her own way through the murk. “My daddy was a sailor / the salt is in my blood / but here I am in Nashville / bow deep in this mud.”* You never knew how right you were the night you wrote that song.
With warm admiration,
* Mickey Newbury “The Sailor” ©1981 Mickey Newbury Music (BMI)