The songs of Mickey Newbury came from a place of serenity and sadness, beautiful recollections of the ones we left behind, pretty portraits of love’s bittersweet residue. He pulls the memories to the surface and leads us through the pain, ultimately to a place of resignation and quiet joy. There is no anger in these songs, and little regret, just dusty gratitude for the love he had and the life he lived.
Newbury came from a different time. Born in Houston in 1940, there were no footsteps to follow, no radio folksters to awaken or inspire him. He was a natural poet, with something inside of him that had to get out. As a teenager he locked himself in his room to dream, write poetry and learn to play a wooden guitar.
At nineteen he joined the Air Force and spent a few years in England, then returned to the States to become a songwriter. He chased gigs to showcase his work in Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana, living in his car and working the shrimp boats when he needed money. He ended up in Nashville and, in 1964, signed with Acuff-Rose. Now a full-fledged contract songwriter with Nashville credentials, Newbury honed his craft in the days before labels and wholesale commercialization, and soon found his songs being recorded by the disparate likes of Don Gibson, Tom Jones, the First Edition, Eddy Arnold and Solomon Burke.
He released his first album of his own work, Harlequin Memories, in 1969, married soon thereafter, and produced three classic albums in the coming years, including Looks Like Rain, Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help the Child. These were his finest songs, utterly original and compelling work that was mostly overlooked in the cultural frenzy of the late sixties. But other writers were listening. You can still hear him in their songs.
In 1973, having built a respectable stream of songwriting royalties, Mickey and his wife Susan moved their family to her hometown in Oregon. He continued touring and, in 1980, was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. He decided to take a break from the business and focused on his family for a few years. Imagine a Texas songwriter living in Oregon, looking like a cross between Robert Mitchum and Pat Boone, playing golf in double-knit pants.
He came back strong in the nineties and produced a wealth of more fine work before passing away in 2002. Newbury released more than twenty albums over a long career, changing the course of folk and country music alike.
Three things you should know about Mickey Newbury: (1) country DJ Ralph Emery called him the first “hippie-cowboy”, (2) he convinced Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt to pursue songwriting careers in Nashville, and (3) Elvis Presley famously covered “An American Trilogy”, Newbury’s arrangement of classic American folk anthems.