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Music Review: Mickey Newbury – An American Trilogy [Box Set]

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Mickey Newbury (1940-2002) never really achieved widespread success as a performer, but as a songwriter his achievements are staggering. His songs have been covered by over 1,000 artists to date, for a total of over 1,300 versions in every musical style imaginable. One would think that someone with credits like those would be a well-known figure. For a variety of reasons, that never happened. In fact, his most famous composition is more closely associated with Elvis Presley than anyone else.

The song in question is “An American Trilogy,” which Elvis performed from 1972 up to his death in 1977. It is a brilliant medley of three Civil War-era songs: “Dixie” represents The Confederacy, “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic,” takes The Union side, and the resolution is the African American spiritual “All My Trials.”

An American Trilogy is also the title of a new, four-CD set from Drag City celebrating Newbury’s legacy. It features the three incredible albums he recorded between 1969 and 1973, plus a disc of rare and unreleased material.

The first of these is Looks Like Rain from 1969. This is a haunting piece of work, recorded in Nashville, and which is considered by many to be the opening salvo of the nascent Outlaw movement. Looks Like Rain is an acoustic concept album about a lost love. The listener is drawn into its web of sorrow with sound effects (rain is a linking theme), and unusual instrumentation.

Waylon Jennings was particularly moved by this one, and recorded a version of “The 33rd Of August” for his 1970 LP Waylon. He also covered the album’s most celebrated track, “San Francisco Mabel Joy” a couple of years later. Even one of rock’s most enduring legends, Mr. Keith Richards has paid tribute to Looks Like Rain with his version of “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye.”

Frisco Mabel Joy was Newbury’s next album, released in 1971. It did not contain a version of the song, so the title is a curious choice. The record does lead off with “An American Trilogy” however, which immediately lets us know that we are in the presence of a genius.

This is another concept album, and tackles the topic of what “America” as an idea really means. It is another deeply moving recording, beautiful, sometimes painful, and always compelling. Many consider ‘Frisco to be Newbury’s masterpiece. Peter Blackstock, editor of the influential No Depression magazine organized ‘Frisco Mabel Joy Revisited in 2000, a re-creation of the entire album with artists including Dave Alvin, Bill Frisell, and Kris Kristofferson.

Mickey Newbury revisits “San Francisco Mabel Joy” on his 1973 release Heaven Help The Child. As a matter of fact, four of the eight tracks are re-recordings of earlier songs. The other three updates are “Sweet Memories,” “Good Morning Dear,” and “Sunshine.”

Unlike the previous two efforts, Heaven has no unifying concept. It is a marvelous collection, however. Leading with the powerful and evocative title track, the new material is right up there with his finest work. “Why You Been Gone So Long” has become something of a bluegrass standard over the years, and has been recorded by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and David Allen Coe among others.

The fourth disc in the set is Better Days (Demos, Rarities, And Unreleased). The 16 tracks are of varying quality, as is generally the case with such odds and sods collections. Five are publisher’s demos, and are pretty raw. There are a couple of home recordings that remained unreleased until now. The most interesting material are the seven songs recorded for a radio broadcast in 1970.

Indie label Drag City has pulled out all the stops for this set. First of all there is the remastering job, done from the original analog tapes for the very first time. They were believed to be lost in a fire many years ago, but were recently discovered in the Elektra Records vault.

The box is a one-time only pressing of 1,000 copies, and features an elaborately annotated booklet with everything one might want to know about Mickey Newbury. In truth, everything you need to know about him is contained in his songs though. An American Trilogy is a virtual treasure trove of music, just waiting to be discovered.

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