Songbird Silenced

Pioneering singer/songwriter and native Houstonian Mickey Newbury passes away

In 1966, Don Gibson's cut of Newbury's "Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings" went Top 10, and Newbury's career took off like a rocket. Later that year, Newbury had former or current No. 1 hits on four different charts -- Eddy Arnold's "Here Comes the Rain Baby" (country), Solomon Burke's "Time Is a Thief" (R&B), Kenny Rogers & The First Edition's "Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In)" (pop/rock) and Andy Williams's "Sweet Memories" (easy listening).

Eventually everyone from such diametric opposites as Jerry Lee Lewis and Olivia Newton-John, Joan Baez and David Allan Coe, and Perry Como and Keith Richards would record his songs. Bobby Bland, Ray Charles, Etta James and B.B. King did, too. So did Supergrass, Chuck Prophet, the Grateful Dead, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Nick Cave, Dread Zeppelin and over 300 others in a list that keeps growing.

Like Harlan Howard, Newbury had a way of making the art of songcraft sound as easy as mixing up a rum and coke. Howard -- not U2's the Edge, who has recently become attached to the remark -- was the first to say that "Country music is three chords and the truth." Here's Newbury's version: "Keep a pen in your hand and your hand on your heart."

In 1968, Newbury launched his solo career with Harlequin Melodies, an overproduced, psychedelicized album he soon came to regard as an embarrassment. One year later, after abandoning RCA for Mercury and then Electra, Newbury released the trilogy of albums -- Looks Like Rain, Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help the Child -- by which he is best remembered. Frisco contained his only Top 30 hit: "An American Trilogy," in which Newbury adapted the words of "Dixie," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and a traditional slave song. Elvis Presley later made the song a staple of his twilight shows.

Newbury also excelled as a behind-the-scenes facilitator. It was Newbury who encouraged the young, reluctant Townes Van Zandt to take his gift even a little seriously, to record his first demos and later to move to Nashville. "Mickey had gotten turned on to Townes and got him his first record deal," remembers Guy Clark. Newbury also hand-delivered then-unknown Kris Kristofferson's song "Me and Bobby McGee" to his buddy Roger Miller, who was the first to record it. Janis Joplin heard it, flipped, and so a classic rock staple -- one of the few that still sounds fresh today after millions of spins -- was born.

Newbury led the charge of Houston songwriters to Nashville. Clark remembers that Newbury was the only person he knew in that city when he arrived there in 1972, though Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle soon followed. Today, Robert Earl Keen, Charlie and Bruce Robison, and Lyle Lovett are all Newbury's children to some extent.

Perhaps Van Zandt, Clark, Crowell and Earle would have gotten heard had they stayed in Houston, perhaps not. But they all went to a place where they were and are still valued. When Newbury died, even though he hadn't lived there for over 20 years, it was front-page, above-the-fold news in Nashville's daily. The Houston Chronicle didn't see fit to begrudge even a single line on the death of this native Houstonian until nearly five days later -- and even then, they buried it in the obit section.

While Newbury was one of the most important musicians to have ever called this city home, it's true that his name was no household word. But if he wasn't very famous, it's only because he never really tried to be. Fame was just another word for success, and success was not what he was aiming for. "Success is when a man gets what he wants," he liked to say. "Happiness is when a man wants what he's got."

By his terms, it's likely Newbury was both successful and happy. He whiled away the '70s on two different houseboats, drifting about the wild and beautiful rivers of rural Tennessee. He married a former Miss Oregon and New Christy Minstrel, had five children and eventually moved to the rural Pacific Northwest, where he spent the last 20 years of his life.

He certainly held the respect of his peers. He was name-checked in "Luckenbach, Texas," about as sure a bid for immortality as there ever was, and he was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1980. "He was a big influence and a really great friend," says Clark. "And a serious really good writer."

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