Mickey Newbury: Crystal & Stone
With the stubborn integrity he brought to every aspect of his life, Mickey Newbury fashioned an uncategorizable song catalogue of abiding excellence and ensured that his commercial possibilities would always be limited. In Crystal & Stone, biographer Joe Ziemer shows how that was all of a piece with Newbury’s lifetime prayer — to want what he had.
His hardscrabble years on the mean streets of Texas, combined with a personality tending toward depression, made early disaster a very real possibility for Newbury. Ziemer highlights the sources of stability that would sustain him throughout his life — Christian faith, friends and family, words and music. Newbury was a natural musician, but it would take a military tour in Europe and hard times on the southern back roads to provide the sophistication and savvy necessary to convert an easy gift into an artist’s passion.
Pivotal in that transition was Newbury’s time in Nashville in the 1960s. Here, Ziemer’s narrative hits its stride, weaving threads of historical summary, personal reflection, recording data and Newbury lyrics into a tapestry of an emerging songwriter. We see his marriage to Susan Pack beginning the family foundation he longed for; friends such as Kris Kristofferson becoming devotees in response to his support and absolute loyalty; and fickle tastemakers of what he’d come to know as “Gnashville” welcoming his recordings and then offering an indifferent shrug. (Though his songs would be covered early and often, Newbury’s own recordings rarely found commercial traction.)
In the face of it all, Newbury developed a unique American pragmatism-on-the-slant. He could understand a Cadillac purchase as a housing upgrade, devise his signature rain and train atmospherics as a mask for tape hiss, and ultimately envision the perfect unity of An American Trilogy (his arrangement of three traditional songs, which made the Top 40 in 1972 and became a staple of Elvis’ repertoire).
A string of masterful recordings began in Nashville, but Newbury would eventually leave Music City far behind, finally settling in Oregon. His later years were plagued by health problems, and the pace of recordings slowed. But this was also a time of refinement for the songwriter, as he began paring his language to its expressive core — into “transposed emotions,” in Ziemer’s apt phrase. Though few in number, Newbury’s late albums distill the essence of his art: an uplifting, human, shared experience.
When asked once to talk about Elvis’ private life, Newbury declined to discuss such “inside information.” Such tabloid forms of “news” are not the concern of Ziemer’s well-drawn narrative either. Its final words are a series of tributes from Newbury’s friends and fans. Again and again we see the man they cherished in a love shared. Their words are from the heart and they ring true — much as each note in the songbook of this American singular.