Mickey Newbury: 1940 to 2002
My first attempt to hear Mickey play came in June 1999, when he was booked to play at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas. I was attending another festival in St. Louis the same weekend, but decided it was worth making the drive of, oh, 1,000 miles south to Kerrville to hear Mickey. I arrived only to discover he had canceled for health-related reasons — not surprising, given his gradually deteriorating condition.
When I heard Mickey was on the bill for the Frank Brown Songwriters Festival at the FloraBama Lounge on the Alabama/Florida border in November 1999, I booked a flight from Seattle to Alabama, and this time Newbury was able to perform. He held the audience rapt for about an hour, accompanied by his good friend Jack Williams, telling stories and playing songs both old and new. I remember being particularly struck by a new tune called “So Sad” that sounded about as strong as anything he’d ever written.
The FloraBama show was Newbury’s final public performance, but it was far from his last musical endeavor. Back in Oregon, he continued to write and record as much as possible, while his longtime friend Bob Rosemurgy of Escanaba, Michigan, poured considerable time and energy into restoring Newbury’s catalog and returning it to the marketplace. Paramount among those efforts was The Mickey Newbury Collection, a box set that gathered up Newbury’s ten releases from 1969-1981, none of which had ever been available on CD.
The FloraBama experience also nourished a seed that had been planted in my own head a few months earlier. The result was Frisco Mabel Joy Revisited, a modern-day remake of Newbury’s best-known album by contemporary artists, released in the fall of 2000 (on Appleseed in the U.S. and on Glitterhouse overseas). Co-produced by Walkabouts co-leader Chris Eckman and me, it was largely an attempt to expose Newbury’s music to a generation that seemed all too unfamiliar with his work (though we were honored to have Newbury’s old pal Kris Kristofferson take part as well).
A few days after we received the finished copies of Frisco Mabel Joy Revisited, Eckman and I (along with his Walkabouts comrade Carla Torgerson and their soundman John Parker) drove down to Mickey’s home outside Springfield, Oregon, to personally deliver a copy to him. We figured to be there about ten minutes, just to say hello; Mickey and I had talked on the phone a few times while Revisited was in the works, but it wasn’t like we were longtime friends, and we didn’t wish to intrude.
Mickey had other ideas. Roused from his resting place in the bedroom, he dragged his oxygen tubes out into the living room, along with a notebook and guitar, and proceeded to spend the entire afternoon sharing his wit, wisdom, words and music with us. “We went down to Springfield for a simple delivery,” Chris mused in correspondence this week, “and we left with an epic memory.”
Yet if we felt somehow singled-out for such special treatment, the truth was that Mickey did this kind of thing all the time. It takes no more than a couple hours reading the ruminations of his friends and fans on Newbury’s website message-board, fondly dubbed the “front porch” by its participants, to realize this. One after another in the days that followed Newbury’s death, regulars related the times Newbury enlightened their lives during a personal visit or a phone conversation or an e-mail exchange.
How he ever found time to continue writing songs, I’ll never know — but he did, and his final album of new material, A Long Road Home, released in late 2001, is the testifying masterpiece. What I remember most about our September 2000 visit is Newbury’s fervent conviction that there remained vital music within him which demanded to be brought forth before he ran out of time. With the help of producer Paula Wolak and many others, he got it done. “So Sad” is every bit as engaging as it had been that night at the FloraBama; “I Don’t Love You” is as simple and sorrowful as any song has ever been; and “In ’59” and “A Long Road Home” are ten-minute bookending odysseys that carry the journey to its destination. “A brave man to write his own epitaph,” my friend Michael Fracasso observed.
And yet it’s not quite the end. Rosemurgy confirms that Newbury wrote and recorded more new songs that remain to be released. In addition, older material continues to be revived and restored, such as the Winter Winds disc issued earlier this year combining a March 1994 live recording with supplemental instrumentation. A video of that recording, done at Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel with Jack Williams, is also in the works.
Mostly, though, what lingers are sweet memories. A photo on my refrigerator caught my eye the other day, a souvenir from a mid-March afternoon in 2000 when eleven musicians gathered in the back room of a bar in Austin to record a song together. For a moment I gazed upon this gathering of pickers — Bob Neuwirth, Mark Olson, Victoria Williams, Kevin Russell, Max Johnston, Greg Leisz, Lisa Mednick, Chuck Prophet, Murry Hammond, Walter Salas-Humara, and the late Mambo John Treanor — and marveled about how in the world they all ended up there that day. The reason was Mickey Newbury.
“Doggone my soul, how I love them old songs.”