From the late 1960s through the early ’70s, Mickey Newbury released a string of classic albums that helped to redefine the definitions of/blur the boundaries between country, folk, and the burgeoning singer/songwriter movement. The word “seminal” gets thrown around pretty loosely these days, but to give you an idea of Newbury’s importance in the aforementioned context, both Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark made their initial move to Nashville because their fellow Texan Newbury was there, and Kris Kristofferson, another Lone Star export to Music City, once said “I learned more about songwriting from Mickey than I did any other single human being.”
On the other end of the continuum, Newbury — who passed away in 2002 — has been an influence on everyone from Will Oldham and Simon Joyner to The Black Swans, and in between, his songs have been cut by artists no less esteemed than Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, even Elvis freakin’ Presley. But for at least the last couple of decades, his name has been heard in a hushed whisper at best. A lot of the reason for this probably lies with the unavailability of his classic catalog, which has been out of print for God knows how long. While Van Zandt and other Newbury contemporaries have at least been afforded the mantle of cult-hero status, the lack of access to Newbury’s material hindered his ascendance to a similar perch.
Drag City has already done a lot for the legacy of troubadours of a similar vintage, releasing the late, great ’70s country-soul artist Larry Jon Wilson’s self-titled swan song and first album in decades, as well as reissuing singer/songwriter Gary Higgins’ 1973 cult classic, Red Hash. And now they’ve outdone themselves by lavishing attention on the finest fruits of Newbury’s career, in a reissue campaign that includes a four-disc box, American Trilogy, as well as the individual release of each of those discs: Looks Like Rain (1969), ‘Frisco Mabel Joy (1971), Heaven Help The Child (1973), and a collection of rarities called Better Days.
Newbury’s songs didn’t often indulge in the post-Dylan poetic flights of fancy that filled some of Van Zandt’s songs — he was more of a storyteller, with a masterful eye for detail and a knack for nailing just the right tone. But when it comes to dark nights ouf the soul and tales of lonely travelers on the hard-luck highway, Newbury’s late-night laments makes Van Zandt seem like a cheerleader. He also had a weapon in his arsenal that most of his aforementioned peers couldn’t claim — a great voice.
When Newbury delivers a song like “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye” (from Looks Like Rain) in his mournful moan, it seems like the saddest sound ever made by a human being. At the same time, though he’s detailing a painful romantic parting, there’s a gentleness to both his voice and his perspective that’s uniquely Newbury. Despite the fact that his heart is coming apart at the seams, he bears his departing lover no rancor, and the lyrics alternate between detailing his own emotional wreckage and rationalizing her reasons for leaving. It’s that kind of open-hearted humanity that makes his vulnerability all the more visceral as his world falls apart before our very ears.
Of course, this is merely one of many golden moments to be found in the treasure trove Drag City is delivering unto the world at large. There’s “The Future’s Not What It Used To Be,” a tear-jerking travelogue from ‘Frisco Mabel Joy that walks us through the wounded world of a ne’er-do-well beset by everything from poverty to heartbreak to alcoholism, with a slow-burning, soulful feel that makes it obvious why someone like Solomon Burke would eventually dip into the Newbury songbook. “Looks Like Baby’s Gone,” from Looks Like Rain, is the ultimate morning-after ballad of a man whose world has become so bleak that he can hardly bear to open his eyes on another day. In a particular masterstroke, Newbury even manages to create a historical precedent for his heartache here, by observing “It looks like I was born when men were born to be alone.”
So what’s next? Will Newbury’s name suddenly start popping up under the Influences secion of impressionable young Williamsburg alt-folk bands? Will we see a Newbury tribute album full of artists whose love of his work goes all the way back to last week? For better or worse, such are the earmarks of influence, and if they do indeed occur, they’re to be taken with a grain of salt. But whether or not American Trilogy and its individual components end up precipitating a full-blown Newbury revival, the important thing is that some of the finest songs ever to come out of Nashville’s post-hippie “outlaw” era — hell, some of the finest songs anywhere — have come back up above ground at last.