Mickey Newbury, news:
Brian T. Atkinson – Looks Like Rain, The Songwriting Legacy Of Mickey Newbury (book 2021)
«She opened her eyes Lord
The minute my feet touched the floor
The cold hardwood creaks
With each step that I make to the door
There I turned to her gently and said,
«Hon, just look, it’s spring»
Knowing outside the window
The winter looked for Angeline»
Fantastic. Leonard Cohen sang about Hank Williams’ many floors above him in The Tower Of Song. Mickey Newbury keeps house in the attic. My words can not do Mickey Newbury (1940-2002) justice. But will try again. Last year, Gretchen Peters released a great tribute album with Newbury’s songs. In a letter sent to the magazine No Depression and addressed to Mickey Newbury, the artist Gretchen Peters explains her relationship to his music. She writes that the songs must come from «a very deep well of sorrow». She points out that this does not mean that Mickey Newbury was sad all the time. Once the songs are written, it is not his pain anymore. The pain belongs to the song, it belongs to the world.
In connection with the reading of the new book about Mickey Newbury, «Looks Like Rain» by Brian T. Atkinson, I hear all his albums again. Again, I am captivated by the beauty of the lyrics, melodies and performances, whether it is the most famous records he made around 50 years ago, or it is newer music from the 1990s and the beginning of this century. «I call it beautiful music.» And it’s no less nice that my wife thinks it is fine I am entering a new heavy Mickey Newbury period.
In my world, Mickey Newbury is one of the greatest. Not that I need to set him up against others. When he established himself in my musical soul 10-15 years ago, he found a completely separate area.
Mickey was surrounded by people like Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, and there is a lot of country and folk in many of Newbury’s songs, but also pop and a kind of «easy listening», often on the same album. I do not always think the latter is a compliment, but when it comes to Mickey Newbury, genre does not matter to me.
Mickey Newbury was perhaps best known for the albums «Looks Like Rain» (1969), «Frisco Mabel Joy» (1971) and «Heaven Help The Child» (1973), albums produced in the legendary Cinderella Sound Studio outside of Nashville. Cinderella Sound Studio was originally a two-car garage Wayne Moss converted into a studio! The albums have a completely unique atmosphere which together with the strong songs contributes to them being eternal classics. Mickey Newbury is the man who put together and arranged «An American Trilogy», a medley Elvis Presley ended his concerts with in the 70’s. Newbury was a musicicians’ musician, and his songs have been recorded by a number of artists such as Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings and the Norwegian Paal Flaata. Kris Kristofferson says he has learned more from Newbury about songwriting than from anyone else. Without Newbury, no «Bobby McGee».
Newbury as seen by others
In the book «Look Like Rain», Brian T. Atkinson lets a number of songwriters and collaborators of Mickey Newbury give their views og the artist and the person Mickey Newbury in each of their sections, and the mentioned Kris Kristofferson is of course included. And so are Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Tom Russell, Chuck Prophet, Darell Scott, Bill Callahan, Robert Ellis, Will Oldham, Andrew Combs, John Lomax III and many more. See separate picture for more examples. Atkinson has previously had a similar project about Townes Van Zandt.
I will more than give a review of the book, take the opportunity to write about Mickey Newbury. I would still think that «Looks Like Rain» has been a challenging book to edit. Contributors will necessarily overlap, and they repeat themselves from time to time. It is interesting to read well-known and lesser-known authorities to bring out their slightly different perspectives, but in any case to place Mickey Newbury right there at the top of «Tower Of Song», where I of course think he belongs.
Voice in his own class
Mickey Newbury had something many great songwriters could envy him. Gretchen Peters says in the book that Mickey’s voice was «operatic» and incredible, that his vocals are as genious as the songs. Mickey’s voice changed character over the years, but the achievements he makes with his soulful voice on, for example, the live album «Winter Winds» from the mid-1990s, do not stand in the shadow of anything. Mickey started as a songwriter for others. Pretty amazing considering his ability to convey his own songs. But then many great artists started their careers just like that.
Mickey Newbury and Townes Van Zandt
Mickey Newbury was unique. But his friendship with Townes Van Zandt, and the fact that he helped Townes get a record deal and establish himself in Nashville in his own way, makes way for comparisms. Both had great respect for each others as songwriters. Several point out that if Mickey Newbury had lived as turbulently as Townes, the legend of him would have been greater, and he would have grown as big after his death as Townes Van Zandt has done. As the new generation of songwriter Andrew Combs says in the book: «I think Townes’ lifestyle helped him appeal to young hipsters. Mickey was not hard living. »
Both artists started out with the lyrics when they made songs. Townes was concerned that the lyrics should function at its own as poems readon paper before he added the melody, and Mickey believed that if he had a good text, the melody more or less made itself. Many thinks Mickey Newbury’s «Live At Montezuma Hall» (1973) is right up there next to Townes Van Zandt’s «Live At The Old Quarter», among the best solo live recordings of all time. Here the songwriters and their songs appear completely stripped down and show that the songs shine even without packaging.
Songwriter colleague Guy Clark gave «Live At Montezuma Hall» to Rodney Crowell: «You gotta know about Mickey Newbury and his work.» Guy Clark was not a fan of the production of «Looks Like Rain». Will Oldham says that he demands absolute silence in the tour bus when «Live At Montezuma Hall is put on.
«Here comes the rain, baby»
«You know, I tried to keep the rain from fallin’
It’s not the rain in the skies, but the rain in your eyes
Here comes the rain, baby»
Guy Clark was not the only one having an ambivalent relationship with the production on Mickey Newbury’s records. Not me. I think both Mickey’s ‘rain songs’ and Mickey’s ‘train songs’ work. Not only are rain and trains important ingredients and metaphors in many of his lyrics, but you also hear the sound of rain and trains between several of his songs. At the same time, the soundscape you find on his three albums is recorded in Cinderella Sound Studio about 50 years ago, and the last album he released before he died, the autobiographical masterpiece, «A Long Road Home» (2002), are so timeless and beautiful that I never get tired of hearing them. Timeless, yet different. Soft strings are central to Mickey’s latest masterpiece and create a fantastic chamber orchestra atmosphere.
Did I say «train songs»? The most beautiful and touching of them all is «Cortelia Clark». «Cortelia Clark» tops the list of my favorites among Mickey Newbury’s train songs:
«I was just a boy the year
The bluebird special came through here
On its first run south to New Orleans
A blind old man and I we came
To Guthrie just to see the trains
He was black and I was green»
Read the words aloud: «He was black and I was green» – holy cow, as Larry Gatlin says. «Cortelia Clark» is about a blind street singer who won a Grammy in 1966. Cortelia Clark, who became a friend of Mickey’s, lost his life in an explosion when he had to fill paraffin on a tank. Cortelia had a funeral without friends and acquaintances, and when Mickey read about his death and burial in a local newspaper, he wrote this song. No one has received a more beautiful tribute:
«I read it in a week old paper
No one made it to his wake
Or laid a single flower at his feet
He was just a blind old beggar people said
But Lord I’ll wager
He will not be beggin’ on your streets
…Save a street in glory Lord for Cortelia Clark.»
I’ve never written a song in my entire life. But I would think that there are a few things to pick up for songwriters in this book. How Mickey tinkered and tinkered and removed redundant words, about how certain songs developed over decades. A contributor to the book points out that the actual choice of words was also important. He avoided clumsy words like «that», preferring «for» to «because».
The melodies are also in a class of its own. You think you know where you have the song, but it constantly offers new transitions and levels fitting the song perfectly. Rodney Crowell describes the song structure as short and long verses about each other and choruses that are not really choruses.
Many of the contributors mention the early song «Just Dropped By (To See What Condition My Condition Was In»), made famous by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition and which gained its renaissance in the Coen brothers’ film «The Big Lebowski». I highly recommend listening to Mickey Newbury’s version of «Winter Winds» (recorded in 1994). The song should be written as a warning against LSD. Mickey’s son, Chris Newbury, says the song is inspired by an incident where Mickey’s friend and Townes Van Zandt took some pills he had received from his doctor for depression.
«Sweet Memories» is another recurring theme. I still think the song that is mentioned most often is «See Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye». Beautiful song, sad, strong and schizophrenic lyrics. Some even believe that the woman in the song, like Mickey, had to be bipolar. And again, it is pointed to the choice of words. It’s called «packed her soft things», not «clothes».
«Baby’s packed her soft things and she’s left me
She’s left me
She’s left me
And I know she didn’t mean to make me cry
It’s not her heart lord it’s her mind
She didn’t mean to be unkind
Why she even woke me up to say goodbye»
«San Francisco Mabel Joy” is one of Mickey’s best songs. There is almost more going on between the lines than on the lines. Steve Earle describes the song as close to Steinbeck’s wrtings. A beautiful setting that gives the vulnerables, the prostitute and her client who falls in love (?!), a dignity. The ending is amazing, notice the letter rhymes: «Stunned and shaken someone said: Son, she don’t live here no more/ She left this house four years today/ They say she’s lookin’ for Some Georgia farm boy.»
Steve Earle also points out how brilliant Newbury was as a guitarist.
Mickey as a human being
«They tell me ole Bud Rose hocked his guitar
Bought a ticket to Nashville to become a big star
Now he works on a bottle and he lives in a car
Do you still have your dreams?»
(Fra «A Long Road Home» (2002)
The book also gives us insight into the darker sides of Mickey Newbury, periods of high alcohol consumption, frustration with the music industry but also his supportive and friendly demeanor.
We gain insight into the challenges of constantly needing oxygen through a separate device, not least at concerts much of his last 10 years of life. The need for oxygen supply was a result of a lung disease, probably caused by chain smoking. It is especially interesting to read his most important collaborator through Mickey’s last decade, guitarist Jack Williams, considerations here.
It is a strength of the book «Looks Like Rain» that one of Mickey’s sons, Chris (known from the great song «The Sailor»), and Mickey’s wife of more than 30 years, Susan, contribute. Here from the song «Four Ladies»
«And Susie you found me
When I was hopelessly lost and I did not know where to go
And you had the answer and we came together
But Susan I needed you too long ago
God knows I’m trying to deal with my sadness
Although at times I swear I do not know
When I am happy or when it is madness
Do you understand
Why the winter winds blow»
Further reading and playlist
If you are going to read a coherent story about Mickey Newbury, Joe Ziemer’s biography «Crystal and Stone» recommended, but also «Looks Like Rain» is a welcome gift to us Newbury fans.
Just for fun, I’ve made a playlist, with some of it available on Spotify. I also include YouTube links with four absolutely essential songs. But listen to the albums in their entirety, as they were meant to be heard.
I’ve saved my perhaps biggest Mickey Newbury favorite all the way to the end, «Frisco depot»: The version found on»Frisco Mabel Joy» with Newbury is great. However, there is a version on the album «In A New Age / It Might As Well Be The Moon» (1988) that is more intense and almost twice as long. Mickey sings there with his heart on the outside of his shirt, with the fantastic extra verse, a verse that digs even deeper:
«Lord, when you’re chained, there’s nothin‘ you cherish like freedom
When you’re free it seems that you’re hell bent for chains
You dance with your demons till you got strength, Lord, to beat’em
Then you deal with the devil for the salvation you sold»