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."

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