Songbird Silenced

To call Mickey Newbury, who passed away on September 29 after struggling for years with emphysema, a "country singer-songwriter" does the man little justice. Newbury, a native Houstonian, and his contemporaries Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Bobby Bare and Tom T. Hall, turned the art of Nashville songwriting on its ear. No longer did country wordsmiths have to pretend that they had never read a book. After Newbury and company got done with the Row, it was all right to love Hank Williams and Robert Frost, Lefty Frizzell and Jack Kerouac.

Newbury caused his peers to cast their nets wide in search of superlatives to describe his tunesmith's talent. Kristofferson recently told the Eugene (Ore.) Register, "To me, he was a songbird. He would do the simplest songs, with simple words, and put them together in such a perfect way that it moved your emotions…I learned more about songwriting from Mickey Newbury than anybody I can think of."

Of his singing, others were blunter. Waylon Jennings -- never one for fancy speeches, though he did have a way with words -- put it like this: "If you don't like to hear Mickey Newbury sing, then you're not American."

Evidently, a lot of us weren't true Americans, because Newbury's albums never sold half as well as his compositions for others. From 1968 to 1981, Newbury released 11 critically acclaimed albums on major labels RCA, Mercury, Electra and ABC. Though he was never the labels' highest priority, his poor sales cannot be blamed on label neglect alone. Nor did he have the "great songwriter/weak singer" stigma that is believed to hold back every songwriting legend this side of Dylan. His billowing tenor was a better vehicle for his songs than the voices of all but a handful of those who recorded his tunes.

No, there was something else in Newbury's music that soured the public, and that was a bleakness, a sense of dancing around the edge of the abyss that the great body of Americans never bought into. Take these lyrics, for example, off the Bobby Bare-produced Rusty Tracks: "God I'm just one man / I wish I was three / Take a 44 pistol to me / Put one in my brain for her memory / One more for my heart / And then I'd be free."

Or these, from "33rd of August": "Today there's no salvation / The band's packed up and gone / I am standing with my penny in my hand / A big crowd is at the station / Where a blind man sings his songs / But he can see what I can't understand."

When asked why he sang and wrote so many sad songs, Newbury liked to say, "When I'm happy, I go play golf. When I'm sad, I write songs."

Neither was he much given for showmanship and the sort of yee-haw Texan-ness exemplified by a certain popular young singer today. It's hard to believe it was more than 25 years ago when he said the following: "There's something special about Texas music, there's no doubt about that, but all this stuff about 'the new breed of Texas singer-songwriters' and so on is just publicity. That aggravates the hell out of me, people who jump on the bandwagon like that…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."

Newbury was born in Houston in 1940 and raised on the rough-and-tumble near-north side, where he later attended Jeff Davis High School with Kenny Rogers. Though he studied violin as a child, he never learned to read or write music. When he was 14 years old, he sang in a local doo-wop group called the Embers and won a recording contract with Mercury Records. The Embers opened for the Coasters on a tour or two, and Newbury was on the forefront as a white musician who crossed the color line. Gatemouth Brown, who then recorded for Duke-Peacock Records, dubbed Newbury, the young R&B singer, "The Little White Wolf."

During this time Newbury also sang in the coffeehouses of Houston's primordial beatnik scene. With the Embers, Newbury was content to sing the songs of others. Not so when he performed under his own name. "I wrote my first song when I was about 16," he told interviewer Joe Ziemer. "The title was 'The Sea of Life.' At that age, I was sure I had seen enough of life to write about it…and you know what? I had. You are never too young or too old to start writing. It's a wonderful way to express what you are feeling that you may find difficult to share with even your closest friend. Simply write…what you are feeling and you can't go wrong."

In 1959, Newbury joined the air force and spent four years as an air-traffic controller in England. He briefly returned to this area in 1963 and took a job as a deckhand on a Galveston shrimp boat. Meanwhile, he was writing songs and getting damned good at it. In 1964, he signed on as a staff writer with Acuff-Rose Publishing in Nashville, and after two years of living in his car, the hits started coming.

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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