Guy Clark & Mickey Newbury – Old friends
Born and raised in Houston, Newbury has been writing songs on a professional level for nearly 35 years now — at least since 1963, the year he pulled into Nashville and began working for the publishing company Acuff-Rose. Over the next 10 or 15 years, he saw some of the nation’s top artists (Eddy Arnold, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Elvis Presley, Joan Baez, Kenny Rogers, B.B. King) record his songs. “San Francisco Mabel Joy”, “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye”, “Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings”, “An American Trilogy”, “Poison Red Berries” and “33rd of August” are just a handful of his better-known tracks. More than a few of these renditions topped the charts, which made Newbury one of Nashville’s hottest properties at the time.
“I had a hit every year just about from 1965,” he says. “By 1970 I had had enough success to retire.”
In addition, Newbury landed tracks on popular albums, including Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler, Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust, and more than one Elvis Presley album. (Presley even turned Newbury’s “An American Trilogy” — an inventive, fused arrangement of the traditional tunes “Dixie”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “All My Trials” — into one of his signature songs.)
“You get a catalog like that, and it’s like having an oil well,” he said. “Because every time the technology changes, all of those albums re-sell.”
And these weren’t formula songs. “I know one of the biggest hits I ever had, ‘She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye’, the title was only in the song one time,” says Newbury. “Everybody in the world said you’ve got to take the title and bang it in people’s ears over and over again. And I never agreed with that.”
Instead, the song focuses on a single moment — a man waking up alone after a breakup — and allows the subject to unfold gently. An emotionally complex mixture of sadness and spiritual strength, the words speak of his broken heart, but show that, at the same time, he knows she did all she could to make things work. “She didn’t mean to be unkind,” Newbury sings, “Why, she even woke me up to say goodbye.”
“Somebody that can get up and write a song that says ‘the sun is shining today,’ when it’s raining like hell outside, I don’t understand that process,” says Newbury. “I wish to hell I could do it. Be worth a hell of a lot more money. But I wouldn’t get any satisfaction out of writing like that.”
“San Francisco Mabel Joy”, probably Newbury’s best-known and most-recorded song, is another heart-wrenching tale. This time the protagonist is a “Waycross, Georgia, farm boy” who aches to see the world, hops a freight train to L.A., and meets “a girl known on the strip as San Francisco’s Mabel Joy.” It’s about the collision of country innocence with the bitter, hard reality of city life — a profoundly sad song that sends chills up my spine with every single listen.
“Everybody assumed that country people were ignorant,” he says, getting onto a topic that has always irked him — how country musicians and fans have typically been perceived by the rest of the world. “I’m country, and I’m educated. I grew up in the city, but when I visited all my kinfolks in Kountze, 90 miles from Houston, we’re talking outhouse time and no electricity. So I was exposed to two different worlds. But I wasn’t ignorant. I was also reading Ferlinghetti and Shakespeare, and listening to all kinds of music, from classical music to blues.”
Hints of rural Texas country seep into almost everything Newbury has written and recorded — trains are a recurring image — but over the years he’s dabbled in a wide range of styles. He says he was always more of a folksinger than a country troubadour (he never toured with a band), but he also cut his teeth in the 1950s singing in a vocal group called the Embers in black R&B and blues clubs across Texas (where he was known to people like Gatemouth Brown and B.B. King as “the little white wolf”). And he notes that two of his favorite albums are Pet Sounds and Rubber Soul. In addition, he’s a huge fan — and a friend — of Ray Charles.
You can hear these and other influences mingling together in Newbury’s songs: the silly, psychedelic rambler “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”, a hit for Kenny Rogers & the First Edition in 1968; “Cortelia Clark”, a paean to a blind street singer who won a Grammy but died alone; and the upbeat, folksy “How I Love Them Old Songs”. In one corner of his catalog is the painfully sad “Frisco Depot” and the spiritually exhausting “The Future’s Not What It Used to Be”; but Newbury has also written out-and-out rockers (“Dizzy Lizzy”, “Mobile Blue”), recorded gospel material (“His Eye Is On The Sparrow”), and says he’s currently writing in “kind of an uptown blues, downtown jazz, whatever you want to call it mood. Songs like from the ’40s.” His current album, Lulled By the Moonlight, is dedicated both to Don Gant — a good friend who worked at Acuff-Rose (“a lot of songwriters you’d never have heard of if it wasn’t for Don Gant”) — and Stephen Foster.
The core of Newbury’s style, though, is probably best represented by sweeping, near-epic songs like “Heaven Help the Child” (which references bohemian culture, Fitzgerald, and Paris in the ’20s) and “San Francisco Mabel Joy.” Shifting slowly from a quiet beginning to a grandiose finale, they’re steeped in melancholy, and are musically and emotionally complex.