Mickey Newbury, a critic once noted, might have been best known for being unknown. Born in Houston in 1940, he wrote more than 500 songs, and his best were positively haunting. On “Frisco Depot,” he sings:
Frisco’s a mighty long way
If you can afford to fly
But it might as well be the moon
When you’re as broke as I
Here I sit with my head in my hands
Watchin’ the trains roll by
Lord, the helpin’-hand mission man warned me
The nights here got cold
“Music has never been anything but an escape from depression for me,” Newbury once said. “I write my sadness.” In his piece “Sunshine,” from his album Heaven, Help the Child, he sang, “Sunshine, you may find my window / But you won’t find me.”
The youngest person ever inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, Newbury is the lone writer ever to have four songs in the Top 5 on four different charts simultaneously, which occurred in 1968. Andy Williams took “Sweet Memories” to No. 4 on the adult contemporary chart; Kenny Rogers — Newbury’s old Houston buddy from Jefferson Davis High School in Houston — had “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” on the rock chart with his band the Fifth Edition; Solomon Burke topped the R&B chart with “Time Is A Thief”; and Eddy Arnold struck country gold with “Here Comes the Rain, Baby.”
Newbury released his debut album in 1968, but his relaxed, downbeat singing style didn’t draw a large following until the album Frisco Mabel Joy, recorded for Elektra in 1971. That included “An American Trilogy,” a medley of three songs associated with the Civil War. It juxtaposed the Confederate anthem “Dixie” with the slave spiritual “All My Sorrows,” and had been well received when Newbury first performed it at a San Francisco club, even though the club owner tried to persuade him to drop it from his program because of “Dixie’s” perceived racism. (Instead, Newbury reinterpreted the song as a ballad, eschewing the song’s conventional marching tempo.)
Newbury’s recording of the medley was a Top 30 hit, but following its adoption as a signature song by Elvis Presley, it was recorded by more than 100 performers, ranging from the Osmonds to the metal band Manowar. In all, there have been more than 500 recordings of Newbury’s various compositions by nearly that many singers and groups. One of his finest songs, “Heaven Help The Child,” won the Tokyo World Song Festival in 1973.
“He had the voice of an angel,” one critic has offered, “but he was a hesitant performer, never wanting to go on an arena or stadium tour because there was no intimacy there for him.”
As writer William Michael Smith noted in our tribute to Newbury in Texas Music’s Winter 2011 issue, although he was in Nashville less than a decade, Newbury altered the musical landscape as few writers and performers have. No one had ever written songs like his, and no one had ever recorded them in such a direct, minimalist approach with virtual disregard for the commercial trends of the day.
In addition, Newbury demanded control over his albums, insisting, after being disappointed by the production on his debut, that he be able to produce his own records or choose his own producer. In that way, he was in the vanguard to the Outlaw Movement, unafraid of bucking the Nashville system. Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and David Allan Coe, who’d become the poster children of the Outlaw Movement, all took their cues from Newbury. Jennings hit “Luckenbach, Texas” even references Newbury and his “train songs.”
But equally significant was the fact that Newbury was Nashville’s pipeline to Houston, which was loaded with budding songwriter talent. He encouraged Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark to leave Houston and come to Nashville, where a new breed of songwriters — Kris Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall among them — was rattling the foundation.
Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Nanci Griffith and others would follow in Van Zandt’s and Clark’s footsteps, up the Newbury trail to Music City. And they too would challenge the establishment’s conventions. And then there’s the story of Newbury’s influence on Kristofferson, who’s always said Newbury was his most important influence.
Few recognize Newbury or grasp the overarching, almost unfathomable influence he had on modern country music. He died in 2002 at age 62 of emphysema. He isn’t listed among notable alumni on the Jefferson Davis High Wikipedia page.
In May, Texas A&M University Press released Brian Atkinson’s Looks Like Rain: The Songwriting Legacy of Mickey Newbury, which contains as-told-to interviews with more than 70 performers, colleagues, friends and family. We include three of those here in this excerpt from Atkinson’s collection.
My friend Frank Patterson was writing a film script in 1987. His dad was a musician who had grown up in Houston and ran into his old friend Mickey Newbury at an airport during the same period. Frank’s dad called to say that Newbury offered to write a song for the movie. Frank thought maybe he could write a small role for him, too. This led Frank and I to go see Newbury play in a club in Houston called the Backstage. Frank had arranged to meet Mickey that afternoon at a club before sound check. I wanted to meet Newbury, and Frank was kind enough to let me go with him on a miserable August day outside in Houston. We met Newbury in the green room where it was cool and dark. He had been golfing that day with an old Houston friend he called his “doctor.” He had lived in Oregon for years by then, but we got the sense he was having a good homecoming back in Houston.
Newbury was drinking a black Russian. Then he had a white Russian and another black Russian. He said the doctor had given him something for his back pain, which we learned later was a real ongoing curse to him. Newbury couldn’t have been kinder or more open. I know now in a way I didn’t then that we were guests in a sacred part of the day: the rest and gathering of energies before a show. Newbury pulled out his little Martin guitar. He was small himself and a little fragile for a man still in his forties. He picked around on the guitar and we talked a bit, but not much about the movie. Then he sat down and played a Luke the Drifter song I had not heard before. I was mesmerized totally and completely. I pulled a chair up in front of him, and he smiled. “Do you know who Luke the Drifter is?” he asked. “Yessir,” I said. He smiled again. I will never forget how kind his eyes were. He went on to sound check and said we should come back for the show that night.
A few nights change your life. This did for Frank and me. We sat on the club’s second level right at the railing. Newbury was a little drunk when he started, but I had never heard anything that sounded like his guitar playing and voice. My heroes at the time were Steven Fromholz, Willis Alan Ramsey, J. D. Souther, and Jackson Browne, all geniuses in their own way, but this was another level of expression. I was twenty-four and had written a few songs. I knew that’s what I wanted to do more than anything, but these songs reached into me at a place that had not been reached yet. I was crying by the fourth song, “Ramblin’ Blues.” I’m sure that was the first time I had been moved to cry by beauty.
Frank and I could not fathom how a man and a guitar could sound the way he did. He sang himself sober in front of fans, family, and old friends in the audience. It felt like we had stolen into a side gate of heaven, like somehow we’d been gifted something that maybe we didn’t deserve. When I was in high school, playing in a band and already trying to write songs, my friend and mentor Roger Paynter had loaned me a couple of Newbury records, saying, “You’ve got to hear this.” I wasn’t ready. Newbury requires maturity, being knocked around a bit, losing some things, maybe having a broken heart. I guess I was finally ready that night.
As it turned out, that show was recorded for the purpose of a live record. The record never came out, but he had a new one that came out soon after called In a New Age. It was atmospheric and otherworldly like all his records. The album was recorded in a studio live with two sets with just him and a violin player named Marie Rhines. The guitar on that record had been built for him, and he used bass pedals to make this full and eerily compelling wall of sound. Frank and I listened to that record over and over. The production sounds dated now, but the songs and delivery are first-rate Newbury, and maybe that was the last great record he made. I got to see him a couple of years later at the Cactus Cafe in Austin. He did two shows, and I bought a forty-dollar ticket to each show, which was a fortune at the time. I’m sure I ate beans and toast for a month to pull that off. We visited between shows, and I helped him and Marie find a lost contact. He asked if I liked the guitar and how I was. He had such a sweet countenance in my time with him. He didn’t have to be that kind. After all, he was the greatest songwriter alive, but I learned something very important from him. Modesty is compelling. Modesty is compelling not because it makes him “nice,” but because that’s how he was in the world and the place he wrote from. Listen to “Willow Tree.”
The shows were both great. Newbury sang “Ramblin’ Blues” at my request, a song that I do now when I feel particularly brave. My favorite Newbury songs require the whole being to even begin to deliver. Ron Flynt and I recently started preproduction on a daunting record of Newbury songs. We speak of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark in our world of songs, but for me—and I love Guy as much as anyone—Newbury is the third in that holy triumvirate. Mickey Newbury: True humility. True artist. True poet.
I knew who Mickey Newbury was almost as soon as I started playing because I’m from Texas. I didn’t instantly know that Mickey wrote “Just Dropped In” when I heard it on the radio, but I learned that by the time I started playing guitar and going to coffeehouses when I was underage. I was very aware of who Mickey Newbury was by the time I got to Houston. There was a mural on the back wall at Sand Mountain in Houston that was Mickey Newbury, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Don Sanders, a local folkie who never quite broke out. I was listening to Kris Kristofferson then and the kind of country music that connected to Bob Dylan records and folk music that I listened to. I actually bought his records. Mickey’s were ambitious concept records that made sense alongside Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I had a direct connection because Mickey was Townes’s first publisher. He signed Townes to a publishing contract and gave him a record deal, but Kevin Eggers approached Townes and wanted his publishing. Kevin had started the Poppy label. Newbury called me the day after Townes died and was in tears. He was sick himself by that time, so he was a little overly emotional. He was trying to blame himself for Townes being the way Townes was. He was wondering how things might’ve been different if he hadn’t released Townes from his contract to sign with Poppy and Kevin Eggers, which is bullshit. Townes was his own worst enemy, a master of self-sabotage.
Mickey called Guy one time and said he was in town. I was at Guy’s house making tapes to take to publishers. Guy said, “You wanna meet Mickey Newbury?” I said, “Fuck yeah, I wanna meet Mickey Newbury.” By then Guy and Susanna were out at the lake in the house where Townes later died, so we drove into town and probably got there around eleven o’clock at night. Not only Mickey was there, but Roger Miller and Grant Boatwright were there, and the guitar started going around. While we were sitting there, Roger and Grant went to Wartrace, Tennessee, which is about ninety miles southeast, woke J. W. Gallagher up in the middle of the night and ordered a guitar, and came back while we were sitting there, an all-night thing.
I probably didn’t see Mickey for a year after that. This was long before I ever made a record. I had just gotten a publishing deal, and I was hanging out with Guy and that crowd when Mickey walked up to me at an ASCAP party that I’d crashed for free booze and shrimp. He recited half a verse from a song I’d played only one time the night we met. He was super, super smart. We were all post–Bob Dylan songwriters, but Mickey really wasn’t. Most of us were doing what we were doing because of Bob Dylan and thought it was all right to do it in Nashville because of Kris Kristofferson. Kris was there largely because of Mickey. Mickey was already writing songs by the time Bob Dylan came along, but he understood how important he was. Mickey was just so smart that there was no way to contain him in the confines of commercial country music, or any other music, really. He was ahead of his time. He was making these records that were too smart for people when you get right down to it.
Mickey commuted between Houston and Nashville in a Cadillac and slept in it most of the time to get his career going. He saw bus stations and bowery bars. One of the last conversations we had was about this bar right next to where CBGB ended up in the Bowery in New York. He had this photographic memory for things that he saw and people who he saw that he didn’t know or even have a conversation with. He watched them struggle, empathized with them, and lent them a voice, like the whole concept and idea of “San Francisco Mabel Joy.” That song’s like Steinbeck. He gave them a really beautiful setting in his songs, which gave them some dignity. That’s what made me want to write some songs that I went on to write and some of the things I emulated the most. Mickey was one of the best solo performers I’ve ever seen. Newbury and his guitar was your money’s worth any way you look at it. I think Townes emulated him the most. He would sit perfectly still and close his eyes. He was not a shoe gazer. His head was back and you could always see his face. He would make eye contact from time to time, but it was almost like you were intruding on something private. It was like he was meditating and then that voice would come out of him. He could get audiences to be quiet just by being quiet himself. That’s a great skill to learn. Sing softer, not louder, when the crowd gets rowdy. He had dynamic range and used a lot of different colors on the palette. He could hit those notes no matter how loud he was singing.
I think he was one of the best songwriters around. There was a quality to his lyrics. In some ways, he was a bridge between Bob Dylan and the people who followed directly in Bob’s footsteps and people in country music like Johnny Cash. Dylan was listening to translations of the French poets and the Beats, but Townes and Newbury were more about Shakespeare and Robert Frost and more traditional poets. I think that’s why Newbury latched onto Townes so much. That makes their stuff unique among people who were writing songs at that time. Newbury was coming from being a songwriter who got songs covered. He was a staff writer, and we all learned from that because we didn’t necessarily want to be that. We all wanted to make records, and so did Mickey. People knew that there were great songs there. He came along in a moment in the late sixties when there were some country and pop artists that were just looking for higher-quality material. Dylan had raised the bar.
I think songwriters in Nashville [regarded him highly], but Nashville was and is very anti-singer-songwriter because it upsets the balance. They didn’t want artists to write their own songs. Publishers controlled the town, and it was the last Tin Pan Alley. They wanted an artist who stayed out on the road making money for themselves touring and then would come in and record songs that they published by their staff writers. They _gured out that the best songs came from people who were smart like John D. Loudermilk, Willie Nelson, and Hank Cochran. Not all those guys were the best-looking guys in the world or great singers. Bob Beckham knew that to get “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” he had to let Kris Kristofferson write “The Silver-Tongued Devil and I.”
That died out, but Newbury was what established it in the first place. People in Los Angeles had recorded his material, and he was one of the reasons that people on either coast started looking to Nashville for material. At the end of his life, I’d just come back to the world after almost dying and Newbury had been diagnosed with emphysema and wasn’t touring. We were on the same record label called Winter Harvest in the midnineties for a second and got back in touch. That’s why he called me after Townes died. He had my number. I’ve always been lucky in that I do know the history in what I do, and I know who came before me and why I do what I do.
Guy Clark consistently would say, “You gotta know about Mickey Newbury and his work.” Guy gave me Mickey’s Live at Montezuma Hall record after we got friendly. I listened to that constantly. All the poets—Guy, Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, even Willie Nelson— had more of a baritone delivery in their voice that lent more gravitas to the poetry they wrote, but I’m a natural tenor. Newbury was writing “Cortelia Clark” and “Heaven Help the Child” and singing as a tenor. I went, “Yeah. I can do it with a tenor voice.” Mickey was a huge influence on me. He wasn’t a self-promoter, but he was every bit the artist. I was absorbed in his work in 1972, 1973, 1974.
Mickey wasn’t sticking with the first chorus, second chorus, bridge structure. He would have long verses, B verses, then something that resembled a chorus but wasn’t. Look at “Heaven Help the Child.” You don’t get Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train” without that song. The chorus structure and how he sings the line “heaven help the child” is “desperados waiting for a train.” Newbury was influencing folks deeply. Guy [thought Mickey was] everything you aspire to be as a writer, the quality of the narrative, the songs inching toward literature. He liked Mickey’s guitar playing. Mickey used Drop D a lot on his gut-string guitar, which created a drone that gave him a real solid platform to use his voice the way he did. He could make things get really still and yet the rhythm was moving the song along. That influenced my guitar playing. The incredibly nuanced performance on Live at Montezuma Hall drew me to it, but he was incredibly charming, too. He was a little shy and reticent.
I found out early on that he’s from the Denver Harbor area in Houston. I’m from East End, which is real working class. Denver Harbor is even deeper. I was impressed. “Man, you’re from Denver Harbor, and you’re up here writing songs? Whoa.” He had my full attention. I might have heard his name in Houston, but I didn’t know him. Kristofferson was the guy in Nashville, the Dylan, the poet. I realized that Newbury and Kristofferson were hand in hand on the street when I got to Nashville. Maybe Newbury was second in command because Kristofferson was so huge and had become a big star. Mickey wasn’t gonna be a big star. He was a shy, taciturn fellow, but he was really open and funny.
Guy, Townes, Mickey, and I did three shows together in Texas, the first time I performed with Mickey. I watched him battle [stage fright]. He’d have to smoke some cigarettes and drink some whiskey to calm his nerves down. Watching him onstage was like, “Oh, man, that’s so good. What am I gonna do?” I’d follow Townes, and we all know that’s impossible, but I was more intimidated by Mickey. Mickey was very well regarded in Nashville. Everybody in Nashville at that time knew Mickey Newbury and respected him. I talked with Bobby Bare a lot about Mickey.
Not everybody could handle his songs. Jerry Lee Lewis took all the nuance out of “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” That’s why people who really study early Americana, Nashville outsider, outlaw songwriting consider Live at Montezuma Hall the holy grail. Even an up-tempo song like “1×1 Ain’t 2” with a word tumble like [Bob Dylan’s] “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is really nuanced. Mickey was a rare dude. He was dazzling one on one, but taking it out to a bigger scale wasn’t his nature. He performed solo. He wasn’t gonna be in front of a band. He never really grew his hair out. He was still wearing slacks, rayon shirts, and loafers. He was conservative in style, but he was really into the Beatles. Their harmonics and chord structures influenced his writing for sure. He was taken up by the currents of the sixties and what it all meant even though he wasn’t stylish.
People covering his songs never reached me because he was reaching me. Listen to him play “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” He played it entirely different, like a soul ballad instead of this psychedelic rave up. “An American Trilogy” did play right into Elvis’s real broad stroke bravura, though. Elvis got it. In my case, I think Bob Seger did such a great job on my song “Shame on the Moon,” that song belongs to him, not me anymore. I can’t point to one of Mickey’s that someone took away from Mickey. I never heard anyone outdistance his versions.
I do a pretty good job of “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” but I’ve never recorded it. I should. I know what that song is inside and out. I probably listened to it five hundred times when I first heard it. That’s the thing about Newbury. I’m still influenced by wanting to capture that kind of nuance to this day. Guy Clark’s “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” is very much torn from Newbury’s pages. I used Drop D for the guitar playing and really adapted Newbury’s almost Spanish style of rhythm for my song “Until I Gain Control Again.” That song probably was more influenced lyrically by Kris Kristofferson, but my approach and melody definitely were torn from the pages of Mickey Newbury’s notebook.
You can get anecdotes about Townes like giving money to waitresses, falling out windows, being an alcoholic, being sweet and a snake at the same time. You don’t get all that color with Newbury. He was very contained. They’d send young writers around to write with me for a while, and they’d have no idea who Newbury was. You say, “Look, man, go to school. Get Live at Montezuma Hall.” They wouldn’t bother, but if people would bother to look at songs like literature in a hundred years, “Cortelia Clark,” “San Francisco Mabel Joy,” and “Heaven Help the Child” have to be alongside the great narrative songs like [Clark’s] “Let Him Roll,” [Van Zandt’s] “Pancho and Lefty,” and [Marty Robbins’s] “El Paso.” How much better can characters be profiled in a song?
Click here to read more stories in our Fall 2021 issue, including our picks for the 25 best album covers in Texas music history, how James McMurtry carries his father’s storytelling legacy in his music, a Q&A with Parker Woodland’s Erin Walter, and the story of “The Blind Whistler.”