Mickey Newbury, who quietly altered the fabric of country music in the late Sixties and Seventies, died on September 29th of emphysema; he was sixty-two.
Newbury was best known for being unknown, a songwriter who wrote hits for Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Joan Baez and numerous others, including “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” the first hit single for Kenny Rogers and First Edition.
Born in Houston in 1940, Newbury, like his friend Townes Van Zandt, grew up amid the fertile and diverse music scene that the city had to offer, including folk, blues, country, early rock, jazz and border music. That spectrum informed Newbury’s own style as he cut his teeth opening for various doo wop, soul and blues players that passed through Houston. Newbury was stationed in England for a three-year Air Force stint, before relocating to Nashville in 1963 and taking a job writing for Acuff-Rose. In 1966, Don Gibson scored a Top Ten hit with Newbury’s “Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings,” which began a string of successful singles including “Here Comes the Rain Again, Baby” for Eddy Arnold, “Sunshine” for Ray Charles and “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” for Jerry Lee Lewis.
Newbury released his first album, Harlequin Melodies in 1968 on RCA, an album that made few ripples, and he promptly departed from the label. A year later he released It Looks Like Rain, which marked the beginning of a string of classic fringe-country recordings. With little concern for Nashvillian regimen, Newbury’s “country” music (he tended to prefer the broader “folk” as a classification) was indescribable, a mutation of the genre akin to the variations Tom Waits has played upon the blues. Without regard for running time, often embellished with sound effects and filled with literate wordplay — frequently with a strong historical bent — Newbury’s songs read as well as they were heard. His more haunting work, like “San Francisco Mabel Joy,” had more in common with his friend and fellow relatively unknown legend Van Zandt, than other writers of the era. It was little surprise then, that Newbury also associated with Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson (who still regularly performs “Just Dropped In”), Tom T. Hall and others with a strong disregard for established structure.
In 1971, Newbury released ‘Frisco Mabel Joy, which contained what would become his best known recording, “American Trilogy.” His arrangement of a trio of Civil War-era songs — “Dixie,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “All My Trials” — climbed as high as Number Twenty-six on the pop charts, and stayed in the Top Forty for seven weeks. Newbury’s “Trilogy” would later be pinched by Elvis Presley, who included it in his live performances.
Throughout the Seventies, Newbury’s influence on country music was most tangible in the work of others like Nelson, Kristofferson, Hall and other left-brained songsmiths — even to the extent that his most popular legacy is being referenced in the Chips Moman-penned Waylon/Willie duet, “Luckenbach, Texas”: “Between Hank Williams pain songs, Newbury’s train songs/and ‘Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain'”. As for his own recordings, Newbury remained defiantly original, and his sales never reflected his acclaim among the small legion of listeners who dug into the roots of some of the music he helped plant.
In 1981, Newbury released After All These Years, which would prove to be the punctuation to more than a decade of prolific productivity during which he released ten albums. He then moved to Oregon and only performed sporadically. Recordings were even less frequent. Newbury recast some of his vintage material for 1988’s In a New Age, and offered his classics alongside a handful of new songs on 1994’s live album, Nights When I Am Sane, but it wasn’t until 2000’s Lulled by the Moonlight that he would offer a full collection of new material, his first in nearly twenty years.
Much of Newbury’s Seventies output spent the Eighties and Nineties out of print. In 1998, The Mickey Newbury Collection rectified that dilemma in grand fashion, collecting ten of his best recordings in an eight-CD box set.
In recent years, Newbury’s emphysema necessitated the use of an oxygen tank, but he managed to release A Long Road Home — a reflective song cycle and classic, conscious swan song — earlier this year.