Mickey Newbury - Biography

by Charles Reece


In a raspy, Southern-twanged tenor, Mickey Newbury sang songs exploring the rich history of America’s folk music tradition.  Unlike the celebratory manner in which much of country music has taken on its classic themes of rambling, hard labor and two-timing spouses, he tended to approach such Americana as laments, dreams deferred.  His existentialist approach was rooted in the Beats, with a melacholic style more akin to contemporaries Leonard Cohen and Tim Buckley than the majority of his country forebears.  From the underground country of the 1970s to today’s so-called “alt-country,” the genre owes much to Newbury for maintaining its continuing relevance and integrity. 


Born Milton Sim Newbury, Jr. in Houston, Texas on May, 19, 1940, he showed an early interest in the local black music scene and sang lead in a doo-wop group, The Embers, during his teenage years. Newbury moved to Nashville in 1963 after landing a writing gig with the publishing house Rose-Acuff Music.  Once there, he became a progenitor of the outsider songwriter movement that tended to congregate at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and shared an interest in themes derived more from literature and sixties protest music than Nashville Row’s clichés.  It was Newbury’s influence that brought his friends Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark to town, as well as helped launch Kris Kristofferson’s career by convincing Roger Miller to record “Me and Bobby McGee” in 1969.


Despite having one of the most graceful and versatile voices to ever record in the genre, it was as a songwriter that Newbury had the majority of his commercial success.  Following the hits Tom Jones and Don Gibson had with his songs, Newbury became, in 1968, the first songwriter to have four top ten hits appearing simultaneously on four different charts — country, R&B, easy listening and pop/rock.  With over 1200 covers to his name, among the diverse artists who recorded his songs are Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, John Denver, Brenda Lee, Bill Monroe, Ray Charles, Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers (with and without First Edition), Joan Baez, B.B. King, Linda Ronstadt and the loincloth-clad, power metal band, Manowar.  Newbury had his only top 30 hit as a singer with “An American Trilogy” in 1972 (Elektra), but it was Elvis Presley’s version that subsequently popularized the song.


Newbury's cult status as Nashville provocateur came from his dogged insistence on having his music sound exactly the way he wanted, commercial demands be damned.  Disliking the conventional production of his first album, Harlequin Melodies (1968), Newbury left RCA for engineer Wayne Moss’s famed, off-Nashville Row, Cinderella Sound Studio to record a trio of albums generally considered his creative zenith: It Looks Like Rain (1969 Mercury), 'Frisco Mabel Joy (1971 Elektra) and  Heaven Help the Child (1973 Elektra).  It is from this period that his most oft-covered songs come, such as “Why You Been Gone So Long?,” “San Francisco Mabel Joy” and “Mobile Blue.”  After a few more albums for Elektra, Newbury moved to a smaller label, Hickory, to release the remaining records from his most commercially viable period. 


Given his reclusive nature and financial security from songwriting royalties, Newbury did little touring or promotion for his albums even during his heyday, but by the close of the 1970's he had pretty much closed the door on the commercial side of the music industry.  In 1980, true to his reputation as a writer’s songwriter, he received a standing ovation upon being inducted into Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.  That same year, he moved with his wife to Vida, Oregon where he spent the rest of his life recording on smaller labels and playing live as the urge struck him.  Newbury died of a respiratory illness on September 29, 2002.          


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