Mickey Newbury is a forgotten gem in the annals of American singer/songwriters. His premature death in 2002 at the age of 62 contributed to his music disappearing into the musical mists of time. He is best remembered for his only hit single, “An American Trilogy,” which was released during late 1971. The song would also become an integral part of Elvis Presley’s stage act for the last 15 years of his life and, unfortunately, became associated more with him. Newbury has been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and, at last count, over 1,000 artists have recorded his songs.
An American Trilogy is a new three-CD box set — a welcome reissue that combines three of his best albums plus another disc of outtakes and a radio show session — that hopefully will reintroduce Mickey Newbury to the musical universe.
After a failed and unhappy experience with the RCA label and the traditional country music recording process, he withdrew to his friend Wayne Moss’ garage outside of Nashville, and recorded the three signature albums of his career.
Newbury has been classified as a folk artist, but his style and sound also carries over into country music, with a touch of blues every now and then. He would depart from the folk/country norm at the time by overdubbing the instrumentals and providing various sound effects to enhance the message. His gravelly and forlorn voice, incisive lyrics, and quiet music all added up to a fine listening experience.
Looks Like Rain was issued during the fall of 1969. It was an early entry into the country outlaw movement, which became synonymous with the likes of David Allan Coe and Waylon Jennings. His songs were longer than the norm, which prevented them from receiving much radio exposure; plus, sound effects like rain made them a little too adventurous for mainline folk or country. Songs such as “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye,” “San Francisco Mabel Joy,” “Looks Like Baby’s Gone,” and “I Don’t Think About Her No More” are representative of his emerging style.
‘Frisco Mabel Joy, issued during 1971, was his best-selling album. Newbury used an array of musicians including guitarist Dennis Linde and harmonica player Charlie McCoy. He also used orchestral crescendos, which changed his simple song structures into something special. “An American Trilogy” was a medley of “All My Trials/Dixie/Battle Hymn of The Republic,” and was the album’s highlight. Issued during the Vietnam War era of political unrest, it was an ode to American history.
Heaven Help The Child was released in 1973. While not as commercially successful as its predecessor, it contained three of Newbury’s better performances. “Sweet Memories” is a soaring ballad and “Why You Been Gone So Long” is a nice bluesy shuffle. The title song contains some of the best poetry of his career.
The bonus disc, Better Days, gathers a number of demos and alternate tracks from the era and combines them with a radio session. Due to the nature of the material, though, it is a disjointed affair. The material is more interesting than polished.
An American Trilogy is an excellent introduction to the mind and music of Mickey Newbury. The three albums contained here form the highlights of an often overlooked career that is well worth resurrecting.
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