FolkWorld #72 07/2020
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Across the Western Ocean

The Songs of Mickey Newbury

The Night You Wrote That Song is songwriter Mickey Newbury's musical legacy revisited by the one and only Gretchen Peters.

Milton Sims "Mickey" Newbury Jr. (May 19, 1940 – September 29, 2002) was an American songwriter, recording artist, and a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Early life and career

Gretchen Peters

»Well, here we are. I'm as sad and shocked as you undoubtedly are. One Monday morning we were flying home from Boston after a beautiful show at Club Passim, happy to know that the electricity was finally on at our house in Nashville, a week after a tornado ravaged our neighborhood - looking forward to getting back to "normal". By Friday we were isolating ourselves at home, keeping our distance from other people, washing our hands twenty times a day, canceling all our spring shows, warily watching the news, and wondering when this nightmare would end. Whatever "normal" is, we won't be getting back there anytime soon.«

»This piece of writing [below] from Emma Zeck has comforted me since the world shut down. I thought I would share it with you, in case you're feeling like I do - unsettled by exhortations to "use this time" productively. I find myself wondering if the fact that we place so much importance on productivity is part of why we're here - I don't pretend to have an answer for that, only a feeling that what is happening now is a sort of metaphor for how wildly out of balance we have gotten. How unused to being still we are. How we've mistaken doing for being. How hard we resist being with ourselves as we are now, at this moment.«

»Reading this brought me back to the reason I make music in the first place - because it's part of who I am. It has become my job, my business and my career - but it started, and remains, simply what I do. I made this new album because I had to. Some seed was planted, long ago. But - with the full knowledge that it's utterly unimportant given what's going on in the world - I still have an album release to work on, and a whole team of people who've been working on it with me. After many calls and emails, we're reluctantly considering delaying the release. We've all put a lot of work and thought and planning into this, and a lot of that work is well underway. I was not initially inclined to delay; in this moment music is something we all need more than ever. Without all of the distractions of our former lives, and with sadness and fear everywhere, music does what it always does - gives us comfort, solace, an emotional release, a place to feel whatever it is that we feel.«

»In any event, this album won't get a "normal" debut; a big album release show is out of the question, and plans for touring the album are now being rescheduled. We won't be able to travel to do any of the planned promotion for the record, either. It's a crushing disappointment not to be able to promote a piece of work that's been three years in the making, and over fifteen in the dreaming. But the one thing that I've always been able to do, since I started these newsletters nearly 20 years ago, is talk to you, directly and with no filter, about the music. However this album, which is very dear to my heart, is released, your help in spreading the word will be more important than ever. There won't be a live release party, but I will share my thoughts on the songs, and what Mickey's music meant to me, on various platforms over the next couple of months. I hope you'll follow me on social media for that. I am still just as excited to get this music out into the world as ever. And I have a feeling that Mickey Newbury's songs, as great songs always do, are going to feel both timely and timeless as we navigate this new world we're in. We may not be able to promote the record the way we'd planned, but I'm hoping you'll help me spread the word.«

»There is so much pain and anger and grief in the world right now it takes one's breath away. All I know how to do is write and sing my way through it, and to it. I don't know what to say that won't sound self-serving; I do know we are well past the time for platitudes. I'm at a loss for words, which is as it should be. As author Glennon Doyle said yesterday, "mine is not the voice we need right now." So I will just leave these words by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. here: "The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people."«

»Back in Tennessee, after spending the first three months of our lockdown in Florida, we're seeing people everywhere without masks, without physical distancing, somehow wishfully thinking that this pandemic is behind us. Right here in Tennessee last week, a country singer put on a concert for 4000 people - photos that showed up on social media showed people packed in together, no masks and no social distancing. I wonder if any of them gave a thought to their parents and grandparents, or their friends who have family members undergoing cancer treatment. Meanwhile, in both of our adopted states, COVID-19 rages on. We all want to get back to playing live music again, but things like this will set us all back by weeks, months. It's disheartening to see. If anything has shown us how interconnected and interdependent we are, this virus has. Please, please, for you, for your family, for your community, for the vulnerable, for me - wear a mask.«

»Since we can't be out on the road right now, we've decided to bring you a new song every Sunday, from our living room to yours. We debuted the first "Sunday Revival Song" on May 31. You can watch at my YouTube channel (don't forget to subscribe to get a reminder) or on my Facebook page (be sure to like and follow so you don't miss a broadcast).«

»And on May 20th I was a guest on Brandy Clark's YouTube series You Can't Come Over (But You Can Come In), where we talked about songs, songwriting and whatever else came into our heads. It was a great conversation, and if you missed it you can still catch it at YouTube

- Gretchen Peters

Gretchen Peters & John Prine

Artist Video Gretchen Peters @ FROG

Gretchen Peters (born November 14, 1957 in Bronxville, New York) is an American singer and songwriter. She was born in New York and raised in Boulder, Colorado but moved to Nashville in the late 1980s. She found work as a songwriter, composing hits for Martina McBride, Etta James, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, George Strait, Anne Murray, Shania Twain, Neil Diamond and co-writing songs with Bryan Adams. In addition, Peters has released nine studio albums of her own. The title track of her 1996 debut album The Secret of Life was later recorded by Faith Hill in 1999. Peters was inducted to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame on October 5, 2014.

Newbury was born in Houston, Texas, on May 19, 1940, to Mamie Ellen (née Taylor) and Milton Newbury. As a teenager, Newbury sang tenor in a moderately successful vocal group called The Embers. The group opened for several famous performers, such as Sam Cooke and Johnny Cash. Although Newbury tried to make a living from his music by singing in clubs, he put his musical career on hold at age 19 when he joined the Air Force. After four years in the military, he again set his sights on making a living as a songwriter. Before long, he moved to Nashville and signed with the prestigious publishing company Acuff-Rose Music. In 1966, country star Don Gibson had a Top Ten country hit with Newbury's "Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings" while Tom Jones scored a world hit with the same song. In 1968, Newbury saw huge success with four top-five songs across four different charts: "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" #5 on the Pop/Rock chart by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition; "Sweet Memories" #1 on Easy Listening by Andy Williams; "Time is a Thief" #1 on the R&B chart by Solomon Burke; and "Here Comes the Rain Baby" #1 on the Country chart by Eddy Arnold. This feat has not been repeated.

Early career

The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury
Gretchen Peters' new album, celebrating the musical output of a noted Nashville songwriter, though not that well known on this side of the pond, has been in the pipeline for more than a decade. Gretchen says that Mickey Newbury "was a hugely important influence on me, an inspiration in his approach to both songwriting and record making. He was an artist, through and through." Three years ago, Gretchen entered Cinderella Studio (Nashville's oldest independent recording studio, est. 1961), where Mickey made his late 1960s/early 1970s records, to tape some trimmed-down and compact selections from his body of work. Gretchen picked not only from Mickey's hit records in his prime but also from his equally impressive though rather arcane earlier and later songwriting. The touchstone being: Does she like it? Feel any empathy? Bring something fresh and new, but be faithful?! Thus, coinciding with the late Mickey's 80th birthday here we eventually are with a colourful song collection: The Night You Wrote That Song - The Songs of Mickey Newbury. [wt]

Track list: The Sailor | She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye | Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) | The Night You Wrote That Song | Frisco Depot | Heaven Help the Child | Why You Been Gone So Long | Saint Cecelia | Wish I Was | San Francisco Mabel Joy | Leavin’ Kentucky | Three Bells for Stephen

Artist Video Gretchen Peters "The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury", Proper Records, 2020

Mickey Newbury

Artist Video

Based on his phenomenal success as a writer, Newbury scored a solo deal with RCA and recorded Harlequin Melodies. Sonically, the album is drastically different from anything else Newbury would record. The artist largely disowned the album, considering its successor Looks Like Rain his true debut. In contrast to the subtle expressiveness of Newbury's prime work, Harlequin Melodies is overproduced and packed with often distracting instrumental touches, shifting tempos, and strange production effects. Some of the songs on Harlequin Melodies would be re-recorded by Newbury for later albums, with very marked differences. "How Many Times (Must The Piper Be Paid For His Song)" was a highlight of Frisco Mabel Joy; "Good Morning, Dear" and "Sweet Memories" reappeared on Heaven Help the Child, and "Here Comes The Rain Baby" reappeared on A Long Road Home, the last album Newbury released during his lifetime.

Owing to a verbal agreement with Steve Sholes, Newbury was able to get out of his five-year contract with RCA and sign with Mercury, where he could work with his good friends Jerry Kennedy and Bob Beckham. Just about every aspect of his next recording, Looks Like Rain, was unconventional by Nashville's standards at the time, beginning with Newbury's choice of studio. Cinderella Sound was located in a residential area of Madison and was run by guitarist Wayne Moss, who had converted his two-car garage into a recording studio. Newbury's decision to record outside the Nashville studio system would inspire other country singers, such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, who were also frustrated by the confines of Music City's traditional recording practices. Newbury would record three albums at Cinderella Sound that defied categorization. One significant aspect of their production is the inclusion sound effects to link the songs, which gave the LPs a conceptual feel and would become a Newbury trademark. His next album, Frisco Mabel Joy, includes his most famous song, "An American Trilogy," later made famous by Elvis Presley. The song is actually a medley of three 19th century songs: "Dixie", a blackface minstrel song composed by Daniel Decatur Emmett that became the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy since the Civil War; "All My Trials", originally a Bahamian lullaby, but closely related to African American spirituals and well known through folk music revivalists; and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the marching song of the Union Army during the Civil War. According to Joe Ziemer's Newbury memoir Crystal & Stone, Newbury was moved to perform the song—which had been banned in some southern states—as a protest against censorship. It is the song most associated with Newbury and his highest-charting original recording, reaching #26 in 1972, and #9 on Billboard's Easy Listening chart. Newbury's version would remain in the Top 40 for seven weeks. In 1972, Elvis Presley's version reached #66 and peaked at #31 on the Easy Listening chart, but it became the grandiose highlight of his live shows. The song gained worldwide exposure when Presley performed it during his Aloha From Hawaii television special in January 1973.


Throughout the '70s, Newbury continued producing albums that were critically acclaimed for their unique, mysterious atmosphere and poetic songs, such as Live at Montezuma Hall (1973), Heaven Help the Child (1973), and I Came to Hear the Music (1974). However, his albums did not sell much, in part because of their eclecticism and Newbury's growing disdain for the music business, especially in Nashville. By 1975, the outlaw country movement had captivated the industry, reaching its commercial zenith with the release of the Willie Nelson concept album Red Headed Stranger and the RCA compilation Wanted! The Outlaws a year later, which would be recognized as country music's first platinum album. The year before, Waylon Jennings recorded his album This Time at Tompall Glaser's "Hillbilly Central" studio at 916 Nineteenth Avenue South, bucking the Nashville studio system so he could record his music exactly as he wanted to. Jennings and Nelson, along with a coterie of other like-minded outlaws, were heralded by many as visionaries for their independent spirit and reaped the rewards of record-breaking sales. Newbury, meanwhile, who had arguably inspired the spirit of the outlaw country movement more than any other artist, was having difficulty keeping his albums in print. Newbury biographer Joe Ziemer sums up the singer's dilemma in his book Crystal and Stone: "Though diversity derives from aptitude and ability, diversity was Newbury's problem with radio stations. One dominant characteristic of his music is eclecticism, and that's what made his albums unattractive to strict radio formats." Newbury was not even living in Nashville by 1975, having moved to Oregon with his wife and son. Ironically, Newbury's profile could not have been higher on the radio in 1977, albeit in a referential way; in April, Jennings released the #1 country smash "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)," which contains the lines "Between Hank Williams' pain songs, Newbury's train songs..." The song became an instant classic, but most of the listeners who sang along with the tune likely had no idea who Newbury was. Although cited by Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, David Allan Coe, and several other country stars as a primary influence on their songwriting and albums, Newbury had little interest in cashing in on the outlaw country movement, telling Peter O'Brien of the Omaha Rainbow in 1977, "It's just categorising again, making a new pigeon-hole to stick somebody into. You got to be dressed a certain way, you got to be a drinker and a hell-raiser, cuss and make an ass of yourself, act like a kid. I've told 'em I quit playing cowboys when I grew up. I just get turned off by all that." In 1976, Newbury signed with ABC Hickory Records and recorded three albums: Rusty Tracks (1976), His Eye Is on the Sparrow (1977) and The Sailor (1979). Despite featuring some of the best musicians in Nashville (as well as film scorer Alan Moore), the recordings failed to find an audience, although his work remained highly regarded by critics and fellow artists. In his AllMusic review of The Sailor, Thom Jurek observes, "The Sailor, once again, refused to sell, perhaps because it was too late, perhaps because it was too early—Merle Haggard and George Jones made records that sounded exactly like this only three years later and scored big... Nashville's radio machine wasn't having it, and therefore the public never got the chance to make up its mind."


In 1980, Newbury was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the youngest person to receive the honor at the time. Newbury signed with PolyGram-Mercury and recorded After All These Years in 1981. After that, the singer dropped out of sight, not recording again until 1988. He was not completely inactive during this period, appearing on the Bobby Bare and Friends television show in 1983 and participating on the Canadian program In Session with friend Larry Gatlin the same year. He also toured Australia in 1984 and sang "Sweet Memories" during a "guitar pull" as part of the television special The Door Is Always Open hosted by Waylon Jennings. However, Newbury was disenchanted with the music business, especially after Wesley Rose, who controlled the publishing rights to 300 Newbury compositions, sold the Acuff-Rose publishing company to Opryland USA for $22 million in 1985. Adding to his woes, the IRS came after Newbury as well. "All that came together at one time... So I wasted what should have been the best years of my life just fightin' off the wolves," he later remarked. "Plus I was old... Nobody wanted me anymore." In 1988, Airborne Records planned a release in which Newbury demos were treated with synthesizers and other then-contemporary production effects. These demos stemmed from sessions with producer Larry Butler in Nashville in March 1983 and featured new-age synthesizer sounds, which Newbury came to loathe. "I was so drunk then," he later explained. "I hate those cuts and never want to hear 'em again." Newbury also claimed to have thrown a cassette of the recordings on the ground and stomped on it. Newbury was aghast when he heard that Airborne was planning to release the recordings, and had even printed up the album art, but after learning that no CDs or cassettes had yet been made, Newbury instead re-recorded the songs Airborne planned to use, and the album was released with these new recordings, effectively Newbury's first recordings in years. Newbury recorded the album solo with accompaniment from violinist Marie Rhines.

Later life

Gretchen Peters

In 1994, Newbury resurfaced with the live album Nights When I Am Sane. A year later he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which would impact his ability to record and perform for the remainder of his life. In 1996, he released Lulled by the Moonlight, his first collection of new compositions since 1981. Several live recordings followed, including Live in England (1998) and It Might as Well Be the Moon (1999). The final album released in Newbury's lifetime was the autobiographical A Long Road Home in 2002. Like most of Newbury's albums, it did not chart but was critically acclaimed, with No Depression's Peter Blackstock calling it "a masterpiece." Newbury died in Springfield, Oregon, following a battle with emphysema on September 29, 2002, aged 62.


Ralph Emery referred to Newbury as the first "hippie-cowboy," and along with Johnny Cash and Roger Miller, he was one of the first to rebel against the conventions of the Nashville music society. The influence of the production methods can be heard in the albums Waylon Jennings went on to record in the 1970s (with instrumentation highly unconventional for country music), and his poetically sophisticated style of songwriting was highly influential on Kris Kristofferson, who later proclaimed, "I learned more about songwriting from him than any other writer... He was my hero and still is.". Newbury gained a reputation as a "songwriter's songwriter" and a mentor to others. It was Newbury who convinced Roger Miller to record Kristofferson's "Me & Bobby McGee", which went on to launch Kristofferson as country music's top songwriter. Newbury is also responsible for getting Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark to move to Nashville and pursue careers as songwriters. Van Zandt later described how Newbury's voice impressed him: "I can't really call it 'explain' but I'd tried tell Jeanene [Van Zandt's wife] about the sound of Mickey's voice and the guitar on a good night at the same time. It's hard; you can't do it. It's like from outer space. I've heard about people trying to explain a color to a blind person... There's no way to do it." During a show in Galway, Ireland, John Prine said, "Mickey Newbury is probably the best songwriter ever."

According to his official website, Newbury has had over 1,500 versions of his songs recorded across many genres of music. His work would be recorded by singers and songwriters such as Johnny Cash, Vampire Weekend, Bob Luman, Roy Orbison, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Bill Monroe, Johnny Rodriguez, Hank Snow, Ray Charles, Tony Rice, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tammy Wynette, Ray Price, Don Gibson, Ronnie Milsap, Brenda Lee, Charlie Rich, Lynn Anderson, David Allan Coe, Sammi Smith, Joan Baez, Tom Jones, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, John Denver, Kenny Rogers, Steve Von Till, B.B. King, Linda Ronstadt, Dax Riggs, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and Bill Callahan, among many others. Elvis Presley's cover of "An American Trilogy" is especially famous. Presley began performing the song in concert in 1972 and released it as a single. He performed it in the 1972 documentary Elvis on Tour and in his 1973 international satellite telecast Elvis—Aloha from Hawaii.

Many of Newbury's songs, such as "The Thirty-Third of August", "The Future Is Not What It Used To Be", and "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)", delve into the dark recesses of the human psyche. Newbury, who battled depression in his life, later reflected, "How many people have listened to my songs and thought, 'He must have a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a pistol in the other.' Well, I don't. I write my sadness."

Gretchen Peters

With this open time
You do not have to write the next bestselling novel
You do not have to get in the best shape of your life
You do not have to start that podcast
What you can do instead is observe this pause as an opportunity
The same systems we see crumbling in society are being called to crumble in each of us individually
The systems that taught us we are machines that live to produce and we are disposable if we are not doing so
The systems that taught us monetary gain takes priority over humanity
The systems that create our insecurities then capitalize off them
What if we became curious with this free time, and had no agenda other than to experience being?
What if you created art for the sake of creating?
What if you allowed yourself to rest and cry and laugh and play and get curious about whatever arises in you?
What if our true purpose is in this space?
As if mother earth is saying: we can no longer carry on this way. 
The time is now – I am reminding you who you are. Will you remember?

 - Emma Zeck

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia [,]. Wikipedia® is a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization.

Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

Date: June 2020.

Photo Credits: (1)-(2), (4)-(6) Gretchen Peters, (3) Mickey Newbury (unknown/website).

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