Mickey Newbury: 1940 to 2002
“The dancing stops, but the music goes on.”
In the deepest blue of night, in the wee hours of September 29th, Mickey Newbury drifted off to dream at his home in rural Oregon, and never came back. His passing was no surprise, as he’d been battling a severe respiratory illness for many years. At 62, he left behind his wife of 33 years, five children, his mother, his brother, a sprawling community of friends and fans…and hundreds of songs that confirm his legacy as one of the most indelible musical forces of the twentieth century.
The evidence, frankly, is overwhelming. Historian Joe Ziemer has compiled a continually-growing list of 550 recordings of Newbury songs by more than 400 different artists.
Some of country’s biggest stars regularly raided Newbury’s catalog: Don Gibson (twelve cuts), Waylon Jennings (eight), Kenny Rogers (six), Johnny Rodriguez (five). Many of country’s leading ladies looked to him, too, among them Tammy Wynette, Sammi Smith, Brenda Lee and Lynn Anderson. Plenty of his contemporaries who also became legendary songwriters covered him: Willie Nelson, Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller.
Newbury’s songs transcended barriers of color and genre, as evidenced by the renditions recorded by Ray Charles, B.B. King, Etta James, Bobby Blue Bland, Solomon Burke, Don Cherry, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Hip rock ‘n’ rollers might be surprised to know Newbury’s songs have been recorded by Alex Chilton (in his teenage days with the Box Tops), Scott Walker, and Nick Cave. As for classic rock, it doesn’t get any more classic than Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis (four Newbury covers each). And then there’s Elvis Presley, who regularly closed his concerts in the 1970s with “An American Trilogy”, Newbury’s ingenious arrangement of the Civil War-era songs “Battle Hymn Of The Republic”, “Dixie”, and “All My Trials”.
Newbury himself took “An American Trilogy” to #26 on the Billboard Top 40 in early 1972, his only chart appearance as a recording artist. The significance of Newbury’s own records, however, reaches far beyond the charts. Despite his reputation as a “songwriter’s songwriter,” Newbury was also blessed with an angelic tenor voice, and his albums aspire to a breathtaking arc of artistry that other performers’ versions of his songs couldn’t approach.
Though RCA released two early records that were basically just collections of songwriting demos, Newbury’s proper debut album was Looks Like Rain, issued on Mercury in 1969. Newbury’s singular musical vision was clear from the outset: Exquisitely crafted songs segued into each other in sweeping suites, tied together with rain and train sounds borrowed from the Mystic Moods Orchestra’s One Stormy Night LP. An air of melancholy pervaded the proceedings; though in conversation Newbury was plenty jovial and charming (as the stage-patter on his 1973 live album attested), his music remained imbued with a signature sadness for the rest of his days.
The five albums that followed on Elektra from 1970-75 — Frisco Mabel Joy, Heaven Help The Child, Live At Montezuma Hall, I Came To Hear The Music, and Lovers — stand as the finest oeuvre of any singer-songwriter during that period (notwithstanding the era’s considerable contributions from Tom Waits, Neil Young, Van Morrison, John Prine, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen). It was a fertile time for budding songwriters, and Newbury was the best. The closest to him was Townes Van Zandt — and it was Newbury who mentored Van Zandt in the late 1960s, convincing Townes to make the same journey from Houston to Nashville that Newbury himself had made in the early ’60s.
It was largely through Townes that I became aware of Mickey’s music. I was interviewing Van Zandt by phone in February 1992 for a daily-newspaper preview of his forthcoming appearance with Guy Clark at the Backstage in Seattle; I informed Townes that Mickey Newbury had been added to the bill, and asked if he knew anything about him. I promptly got an earful. “He heard me at a joint in Texas when I was a young hippie, and he said, ‘You’ve got to come to Nashville,'” Townes related, before sharing a story of his wife Jeanene’s first reaction to hearing Mickey play: “I tried to explain how pretty he sings, and we went and saw him, and her jaw just dropped open. You can’t explain that voice, right? And afterwards, Jeanene went up and asked him, ‘I want you to sing “Weeping Like A Willow Tree” at my funeral.’ And he said, ‘Well, I will if you’ll buy the ticket!'”
In the past decade, singing became increasingly difficult for Mickey. The respiratory ailments — perhaps emphysema but never definitively diagnosed as such, though likely influenced both by Newbury’s smoking and a genetic susceptibility to lung problems — eventually required that he be hooked up to an oxygen supply full-time. And yet, on those increasingly rare occasions when his voice took flight, the magic that Townes had been unable to explain still remained.