Guy Clark & Mickey Newbury – Old friends
It’s a cloudy January afternoon when I first get Mickey Newbury on the phone. “How’s the weather down there?” he asks. I’m in San Francisco, he’s in Oregon, and we’re both patiently awaiting what excitable weather reporters have predicted to be another massive rainstorm.
It’s ironic, though, that the first thing we talk about is rain, because it’s something that anyone who spends time with Newbury’s music quickly becomes familiar with. Sometimes drizzling, other times pouring, and occasionally crackling with thunder, several of Newbury’s early albums are accented with the sound of rain, usually falling in the empty spaces between songs.
“The reason why I put rain on those albums,” he explains, “aside from the fact that I liked the mood, was because there was so much hiss on the damn tape.”
Along with the rain sounds, Newbury’s albums from the late 1960s and early ’70s (Looks Like Rain, Frisco Mabel Joy, and Heaven Help the Child are three of his best) are full of soaring vocals, echoing drumbeats and complex arrangements — sometimes full and lush (with steel guitars, Newbury says, playing the string parts), other times delicate and minimalist. Surprisingly, though, these albums were not made in downtown Nashville recording palaces, but in a four-track studio in a converted garage. The studio was run by a Nashville session man named Wayne Moss, who was also a member of the group Area Code 615. While not exactly “garage” recordings in the rock ‘n’ roll sense, the operation was ground-level enough that white noise became a problem from so much “ping ponging” — the process of transferring vocal and instrumental parts from one track to another.
“I would go back to my boat [Newbury lived at the time on a houseboat outside of Nashville] and listen to the album [Looks Like Rain], and it would never bother me. I was cutting it during the winter, and most of the time it was raining. I was laying in bed one night, and I had some wind chimes outside my boat, and they were dingling along, and I got to thinking: I come back here and listen to my tracks, and like them, and go back to the studio and the hiss drives me crazy. And the reason why is because rain sounds exactly like static. So when I put the rain in, it blended into the static, and it sounded like there was continuous rain. Your mind actually was fooled into believing there was rain in places there were no sound effects at all.”
Everytime it rains, Lord, I run to my window
All I do is just wring my hands and moan
Listen to that thunder, Lord, can’t you hear that lonesome wind moan?
Tell me baby, now, why you been gone so long
— “Why You Been Gone So Long”
Mickey Newbury possesses a strong, versatile tenor voice that has to be one of the most beautiful to ever pass through Nashville — full of dusty melancholy, sad longing, and a piercing, haunting glow. Since his debut album, Harlequin Melodies — released in 1968 by RCA Victor (an album he says he “detests”) — Newbury has made 15 albums, up to and including 1996’s Lulled By the Moonlight. Even during his heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, however, Newbury was much better known for the songs he’s written than for his own distinct versions of them.
From today’s perspective, though, it’s clear Newbury was a major player in a musical revolution of sorts that swept through Nashville during that period — revitalizing country music with fresh ideas; acknowledging a broader range of influences (psychedelic rock, folk, blues, R&B); and ultimately winning the industry a much larger fan base in the process. Artists such as Newbury, Willie Nelson, Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall and Waylon Jennings not only had sincere respect for country icons such as Hank Williams and Roy Acuff, but were fans of the music of such “outside” artists as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Ray Charles. These influences couldn’t help but seep through the pores of their songs.
“Yeah, there was just a handful of people who really did it, and they opened the doors for everybody else,” says Newbury of the changes that took place in Nashville — radical steps that included breaking away from the studio system (the Nashville Sound), writing songs that defied formalistic conventions, and adopting a more open-mind attitude toward music that spoke clearly to young and old people — urban California folk fans and rural Southern farmers — alike.
When Newbury chose to record his second album, Looks Like Rain, in Moss’ converted garage studio, for instance, it was a defiant move — and this was several years before the term “outlaw” (and the names Willie and Waylon) became chic.
“The president of Mercury told me he hated the album. And I told him to kiss my ass, I’d buy it back. Which I did. And I turned around and sold it to Elektra Records for $20,000 more than what I bought it for.”
Originally released in 1969, Elektra re-released it in 1973 as a double-album package with Live at Montezuma Hall.
“Elektra Records was a great label when I signed [in 1970]. That’s when Jac Holzman was running it. It was like a family.”