Perfect Sound Forever


'A World Full of People, And So Many People Alone'
The Song Poetry of Mickey Newbury
By Kasper Nijsen
(March 2013)

It always rains in Mickey Newbury's world. There may be a solitary ray of sun occasionally, a glimpse of better days ahead – but all begins and ends in a haze of misty showers. His second album was titled Looks Like Rain (1969) and its opening song laments that 'the skies are all grey' - even though yesterday's newspaper 'forecast no rain for today.' Nor is all the precipitation merely verbal: many of the songs on San Francisco Mabel Joy (1971) set the scene with a flurry of falling rain-drops and even, in some cases, the sound of rolling thunder.

When the clouds are kind enough to part for a moment, the singer hardly welcomes the change of weather. In a song luminously titled "Sunshine," Newbury bitterly addresses the new day: 'Sunshine pack up your dawn and move on down the street.' In the better-known lyrics of "She Even Woke Me up to Say Goodbye," the dawn not only reminds the singer of his grief ('Just like my heart, the dawn is silently breaking') but also heralds a different kind of rainfall: 'And with my tears it goes tumbling to the floor.'

The mood of many of Newbury's songs is one of brooding melancholy, grief over lost love, and, most of all, a deeply felt sense of loneliness. If country music has a reputation for misty-eyed tearjerkers, Newbury deserves to be recognized as one of the masters of the heart-rending country ballad. Yet before the reader stacks up on tissues and starts sobbing to his YouTube videos, it is worth distinguishing him from the clogging sentimentality of many lesser country artists. There is a quiet dignity to his greatest work, a stately sense of decorum that prevents it from slipping into sloppy bathos.

From Houston to Nashville

Who was this lonely rain-poet who burst onto the scene in the late sixties, enchanting audiences with a voice comparable only to the likes of Hank Williams and George Jones? Mickey Newbury was born and raised in Houston, Texas, and began singing and writing at an early age. As a teen, he allegedly spent a year locked up in his room, listening to music and reading Edgar Allen Poe. Later, he joined the Air Force and spent time overseas in England and France, before earning his way as a travelling musician and drifting into the American capital of country music.

In Nashville he began writing the songs that jumpstarted his career and brought him some measure of fame. 1968 was the year of his great breakthrough, with songs like "Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings" recorded by Don Gibson and Tom Jones, and "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" recorded by Kenny Rogers. This recognition was only matched when, in the 1970's, Elvis Presley adopted Newbury's medley "An American Trilogy" as the center-piece of his come-back tours.

By this time he had already begun recording his own music, especially the great run of albums that includes Looks Like Rain (1969), Frisco Mabel Joy (1971) and I Came To Hear The Music (1974). Apart from a brief break in the 1980's, Mickey kept writing and recording until Blue To This Day (2003) was released shortly after his 2002 death from lung disease. While his albums never made a big impact with a wider audience, his songs have been covered by everyone from B.B. King and Johnny Cash to Joan Baez and Solomon Burke, and he continues to be held in high regard by songwriters and musicians.

Singer, poet, songwriter

Newbury brought a rare intelligence and grace to the battered clichés of songwriting. One of his gifts was a penchant for turning a stock phrase around with a simple touch. 'You only live once...' he sings, pauses, then adds ' a while.' There is similar wit in the title of "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," and the refrain of "The 33rd of August," where he tells his audience that it is not only the 33rd of August, but also 'eight days from Sunday', though he is still 'Saturday bound.' Newbury loved to portray the out-of-tune or deranged state of mind of drunkards, lovers and drug users.

There is a more unsettling kind of irony in his songs too. "Baby's Not Home" begins as a contrite lover's plea, with the singer humbly pleading with his departed love, 'Was I too weak, or was I too strong?' Yet the follow-up slyly suggests he has not quite stopped arguing: 'Was I too right, when she was wrong?' Similarly "1x1 Ain't Two" contains the memorable refrain, 'Yes I know I done you wrong girl, but you know I done it well' - hardly the way to make up for past mistakes. Newbury's wry humor works because it does not turn his songs into superficial novelty tunes, keeping their emotional dignity intact.

If he sometimes overreached himself poetically, for instance in the Dylanesque "T. Total Tommy" or the overwrought "The Queen," Newbury also had an eye for the fitting lyric metaphor. One of his most touching songs, "How Many Times (Must the Piper Be Paid For His Song)," opens with the memorable lines:

Morning came and found her at the window with her nose pressed to the glass,
The dew was like a broken diamond necklace left scattered on the grass.
The personified 'morning came and found her', the delicate detail of her nose pressing against the glass, the exquisite metaphor that is at once a symbol for her feelings: all merge in an impressive opening. In only two lines, Newbury paints a picture that is at once detailed, imaginative and immensely suggestive of the song's emotional tone.

As a stately country ballad, "How Many Times" is only surpassed by the bleak "Frisco Depot," also on Frisco Mabel Joy. The song opens with a broke and despondent singer watching the trains go by, awaiting the cold nightfall with no place to stay. He raises his voice in an unremitting lament to loneliness in the midst of material wealth: even though Frisco is a 'mighty rich town', where skyscrapers reach 'a mile' into the sky, the singer wryly observes that 'no one can even afford just the time' to tell him why this world is 'full of people, and so many people alone?'

Though Newbury had other talents as a songwriter - for instance in the narrative mode of San Francisco Mabel Joy - it is impossible to bypass his voice. The majestic tenor and fluttering vibrato of his early work deserve high praise, but it is perhaps on his later recordings that his voice found its true depth. His 1991 cover of "Summertime" - an unreleased demo now available on YouTube - is a perfect demonstration of his style. He launches a full-frontal assault on the mellow, warm-blooded ease of Gerswin's song, with a smoky vocal that transplants the song to a burning desert where the fish are gasping for breath rather than jumping, and the cotton withers in the scorching heat.

Personal coda

It has always seemed to me that the songs of Mickey Newbury are best appreciated in times of difficulty, when life thwarts our deepest yearnings and we are driven to face the single fact we spend a lifetime trying to deny (perhaps rightly so): the fact that, as American country novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) once put it, 'Loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.' It is this recognition that is at the heart of Newbury's art.

When Newbury's voice first entered my life, I was a 25-year old student wandering the streets of rainy Amsterdam (it always rains in Amsterdam) in search of something I had lost. It was a time of fading dreams, of silent despair over someone I had loved dearly but lost sight of. Coming down from the reckless idealism of youth, the future was, to speak with, not what it had used to be. It was then that I found this voice from a far-off past, beyond the ocean, articulating so clearly how I felt. From the moment I first heard it, Newbury's music became, to quote him once more, 'a comfort to me when I was alone' - as it has been to many others, if his biography Crystal and Stone (2004) is anything to go by.

More than any other popular artist, in his most powerful songs Mickey Newbury acknowledges that we are perhaps, in the last instance, forever alone. Yet for all its sorrow his music brings a sense of dignified strength to our shared struggle with the loneliness of life. It is when love is lost, when dreams begin to fade, that his voice speaks to us most eloquently, reminding us of the longings that remain forever unsatisfied, and sharing his heroic determination to nevertheless keep on living, and feeling, and loving, and writing, and singing – come rain or come shine.

Some of these songs have appeared in different arrangements on different albums.

From Harlequin Melodies (1968)
"Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) "
"Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings"
"How Many Times Must the Piper (Be Paid for His Song)"

From Looks Like Rain (1969)
"Wrote A Song A Song/Angeline"
"She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye"
"T. Total Tommy"
"The 33rd of August"
"San Francisco Mabel Joy"

From Frisco Mabel Joy (1971
) "How Many Times Must the Piper (Be Paid for His Song)"
"Frisco Depot"
"How I Love Them Old Songs"
"San Francisco Mabel Joy"

From Sings His Own (1972)
"Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) "
"Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings"
"The Queen"

From I Came to Hear the Music (1974)
"You Only Live Once (In a While)"
"Baby's Not Home"
"1 x 1 Ain't Two"

Unreleased (1991)
"Summertime" (Gershwin)

Further reading:
Mickey Newbury: Crystal and Stone by Joe Ziemer (2004)
The Thomas Wolfe quote is from his essay "God’s Lonely Man" (ca. 1938)

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