While Houston played a huge part in the early history of country music, by the end of the 1950s a new breed of artist was coming on the scene. Western Swing, for all purposes, was a relic, and although honky-tonk was still a force in the charts and on radio, its share of the pie was waning.
The arrival and public acceptance of Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets and other early rock and rollers blindsided country music's powers that be and forced Nashville to rethink both its audience and its cultural position if it wanted to continue to prosper.
Ten years later, the arrival of the Beatles and the beginnings of the anti-Vietnam, anti-establishment, drug-favoring counterculture uprising presented country music with even more difficult economic and cultural hurdles. As usual, maverick Houstonians who refused to conform to the tepid, poppy "Nashville Sound" and had zero interest in any music described as "countrypolitan" figured heavily in the ensuing changes.
Through sheer will and wildness of spirit, they forced Nashville to grudgingly accept a new style of realistic songwriting that had many of its beginnings in the blues and folk clubs of Houston. We'll get to the rest of this amazing crop of songwriters next week, but Mickey Newbury is so important, he deserves a blog all his own.
In fact, he deserves a much more comprehensive entry than the brief four paragraphs allotted to him in the second edition of The Encyclopedia of Country Music itself.
A product of Jefferson Davis high school, Newbury was a lifelong words and music enthusiast. By the time he entered high school, he was holing up in his room writing his first songs while performing with a successful local doo-wop group, the Embers.
The underage Newbury frequented the blues clubs of the Third Ward some nights and was christened "Little White Wolf" by no less a legend than Gatemouth Brown. Following an overseas stint in the military, Newbury traveled around the Gulf Coast and South working odd jobs like shrimping while he wrote and tried to sell songs, performing where and when he could. Nashville veteran Don Gant convinced Nashville's premier publishing company Acuff-Rose to add Newbury to their roster in 1964, and he relocated to Nashville in 1965.
By 1966, he was on radar as a coming songwriter, scoring his first hit with Don Gibson's cut of "Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings," which entered the Top 10. Tom Jones released a version that became a worldwide pop hit, and Newbury's bones were made.
In 1968, Newbury had established a monumental milestone in popular music by having four different songs by four different artists in the Top 5 on four different charts: The psychedelic-tinged rocker "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" by another Houstonian, Kenny Rogers, and his band the First Edition (No. 1 on the pop/rock chart); crooner Andy Williams' version of "Sweet Memories" (No. 1 on the easy listening chart); Solomon Burke's cut of "Time Is a Thief" (No. 1 on the blues/R&B chart); and "Here Comes the Rain Baby" by country smoothie Eddie Arnold (No. 5 on the country chart).
Harlequin Memories, Newbury's first solo album, was released the same year. He hated the lush "Nashville Sound" treatment that Elvis Presley producer Felton Jarvis drenched the songs in and, in a move unheard of in Nashville, Newbury asked to be released from his recording contract. In effect, this was one of the first shots fired in the war between mainly a rowdy coterie of bull-necked Texans and the Nashville establishment that would lead to the Outlaw Movement.
Released from his contract, Newbury ensconced himself in Wayne Moss' Cinderella Studios outside Nashville and produced three stunning albums that are generally acknowledged as his masterpiece recordings: Looks Like Rain, Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help the Child..
Newbury actually broke into the charts as a performer with "An American Trilogy," released on Elektra in 1971. Elvis Presley covered it, as did over 100 other artists, and The King would continue to perform the song in his live shows throughout his career.
Covers of Newbury songs like "She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye" were instrumental in the revival of Jerry Lee Lewis's career as a country singer after his fall from grace as a rock and roller due to his controversial marriage to his 13-year old cousin. Newbury was also instrumental in encouraging Houston talents Townes van Zandt, Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell to migrate to Nashville to write and peddle songs:
With his songs being covered by artists in virtually all genres of popular music, Newbury threw Nashville the biggest curve ball yet, leaving Music City for his wife's small hometown in Oregon. By 1980, at only 40 years old, Newbury was in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
After a break from music, he returned to writing and performing again. In 1995, Newbury's health took a downturn, yet between 1995 and 2002, the year he died, he doubled his catalog.
Revered as the ultimate songwriter's songwriter, a writer who influenced Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller, Townes van Zandt and countless others, as stated in his official biography Newbury's "love was music, not the business."
With 1,000-plus covers of his songs, Newbury's legacy as an artist remains virtually unparalleled.
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