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Mickey Newbury: Houston's Forgotten Genius

"Hank Williams' pain songs, Newbury's train songs/ And 'Blue Eyes Cryin' In the Rain'

- Willie Nelson & Waylon Jennings, "Luckenbach, Texas"

Mickey Newbury: Houston's Forgotten Genius

Lonesome, Onry and Mean was sitting around having a few cold pops the other night when we put on The Best of Mickey Newbury. It wasn't long before the room got quiet; nothing we were yacking about was as important as the sounds coming out of the speakers.

During "It Makes Me Wonder If I Ever Said Goodbye," which was covered by both Johnny Rodriguez and Kenny Rogers, one of our songwriter compadres said, "That may be the greatest tearjerker ever written."

"She at times still comes around, though she's someone else's now I can't lay it down no matter how hard I try Yes, I leave her then I find, she's no farther than my mind Makes me wonder if I ever said goodbye

After our listening session, we Googled up a YouTube performance of this monster track and forwarded the link to few of our musical friends.

"Makes Me Wonder If I Ever Said Goodbye"

The next day, Nashville producer/publisher and former Houstonian Frank Liddell, whose credits include all kinds of Grammys and CMA awards for his work with Chris Knight, Jim Lauderdale, Miranda Lambert, his wife Lee Ann Womack and others, wrote back:

"This is one of my favorite Newbury songs of all time. I love this version. Years ago when I worked with Mark Chesnutt, I tried unsuccessfully to get him to record it on several occasions. I was obsessed with it."

Outside the semi-closed world of Nashville's Music Row and a bevy of music geeks and fanatics that includes former No Depression editor Peter Blackstock, few people recognize Newbury or grasp the over-arching, almost unfathomable influence of this old Houston boy on modern country music.

Although he was only in Nashville less than a decade before dropping out and moving to Oregon, Mickey Newbury altered the musical landscape of Nashvegas and America as few writers and performers have ever done. To call him the Stephen Foster or Scott Joplin of his time would not be much of a hyperbolic stretch.

Disillusioned by Elvis Presley producer Felton Jarvis's production on his first RCA album, Harlequin Melodies, Newbury, who virtually disowned the album, asked to be released from his recording contract. His only requirement for his next deal was that he be able to produce his own records or choose his own producer.

The records that emerged from engineer Wayne Moss's garage studio - Looks Like Rain (1969), 'Frisco Mabel Joy (1971) and Heaven Help the Child (1973) - are Newbury's masterpieces. They not only sent shock waves through the Nashville establishment, but to some extent revolutionized American music.

No one had ever written songs like these, and no one had ever recorded them in such a direct, minimalist approach with virtually total disregard for the commercial trends of the day. Newbury and Moss dimissed the usual gloss-and-glitz Nashville pop claptrap and cut the songs exactly as they felt them - an unheard-of thing in Nashville, where a few producers and engineers had a "Nashville sound" formula that all songs were made to conform to.

 

Along with Bobby Bare, who also demanded control over his albums, Newbury was in the vanguard of the Outlaw Movement, the first guys to successfully buck the Nashville system. Waylon, Willie, and Tompall Glaser who, along with David Allan Coe, would become the poster children of the Outlaw Movement, all took their cues from Newbury and Bare. A movement still revered today as one of the high points of 20th-century American music was mid-wifed by those two men.

Mickey Newbury: Houston's Forgotten Genius

But equally significant was the fact that Newbury was Nashville's pipeline to Houston, and Houston was loaded with budding songwriter talent. Newbury encouraged Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark to leave Houston and come to Viet Nashville, where a new breed of songwriters was shaking the establishment to its rotten core.

Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Nanci Griffith and others would follow in Van Zandt's and Clark's footsteps, up the Newbury trail to Music City. And they too would shake the establishment's ideal. And then there's the whole other story of Newbury's influence on Kris Kristofferson, who has always said Newbury was his most important influence.

Throw in one more Texas connection: Newbury is the guy who convinced Fort Worth native Roger Miller to record Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee."

The youngest person ever inducted into the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame, Newbury was the only writer ever to have four songs in the Top 5 on four different charts simultaneously, which happened in 1968: Crooner Andy Williams had "Sweet Memories" atop the pop chart; Kenny Rogers - Newbury's old Houston buddy from Jeff Davis High School - and the First Edition had "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" on the rock chart; Solomon Burke topped the R&B chart with "Time Is A Thief"; and Eddy Arnold struck country gold with "Here Comes the Rain, Baby."

Other Newbury compositions became part and parcel of the American musical lexicon: "She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye" (Jerry Lee Lewis); "The 33rd of August" (Coe); "San Francisco Mabel Joy" (Waylon Jennings; Kenny Rogers); "Why You Been Gone So Long" (Carl Perkins, Gene Clark); "Frisco Depot" (Jennings, Roberta Flack); "How I Love Them Old Songs" (Bill Monroe, Tompall Glaser).

But perhaps Newbury's crowning achievement was Elvis Presley's cover of "American Trilogy." According to Tim Wilton's Newbury biography, the King ended every show for years with "Trilogy."

Elvis Presley, "American Trilogy"

LOM's friend Mark Germino, known all over Nashville as a songwriter's songwriter, also responded to our e-mailout about "It Makes Me Wonder If I Ever Said Goodbye."

"One of the greatest country songs of that 1970-1990 era," Germino wrote. "Notice the song has no 'furniture' in it, as we say in the songwriting world. I was so honored when he asked me to write the liner notes for Nights When I Am Sane.

"And then we did a show together in Nashville, and that too was an extraordinary night. I fuckin' miss that man like I can't even explain."

You're not the only one, Mr. Germino.

Newbury passed away in 2002 after a long battle with emphysema. He is not even listed among Davis' notable alumni on the school's Wikipedia page.


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