Mickey Newbury's music has been a big part of my life for almost 40 years. Like many others in the UK of my vintage, I first heard Mickey on the radio singing An American Trilogy back in 1971. I remember discussing the song one day with the late Joe Butler of Liverpool's Hillsiders, a good friend at that time. The Hillies were really enthusing about the song, and Joe told me they'd assumed at first that Mickey was black because he sang with so much impassioned soul. I picked up a copy of the 'Frisco Mabel Joy album the next day.
Some years later I had the good fortune to interview Mickey for a country music magazine at Wembley in 1977. Amongst other things, I remember him saying that although naturally he was pleased when Elvis covered An American Trilogy - it became his Vegas show-stopper - the patriotic, military drum sound had given a different feel to the song than he'd intended. Mickey had seen the Trilogy as a love song, his love song to the American people - the North, the South, the Native and African-American. Sadly, even then Mickey was not in the best of health, and the people with him cut short our interview so that he could rest. I still have the tape somewhere, on which the strains of Emmylou and her Hot Band, running through a sound-check in the main auditorium, can be heard in the background.
Of course, Mickey went out on stage later to give a masterly performance.
This 4-CD box set comprises 3 re-mastered original albums, along with an interesting album of demos and other tracks, as follows:
* CD1 - Looks Like Rain - 7 tracks - playing time approx 41:30 minutes
* CD2 - 'Frisco Mabel Joy - 11 tracks - playing time approx 38:53 minutes
* CD3 - Heaven Help The Child - 8 tracks - playing time approx 37:13 minutes
* CD4 - Better Days - (Demos, Rarities, Unreleased) - 15 tracks - playing time approx 44:47 minutes **
* Newbury's America - a superb b&w map of the USA, bigger than A3 size unfolded, and printed on fine art paper, charting (with accompanying notes) some 22 reference points relating to Mickey's life, career and (some of his) songs - starting with Point no. 1: Houston, Texas, which reads: 'Born Milton Sims Newbury, May 19, 1940 etc ...', and on through to point no. 22: Reno, Nevada, citing a line from the song Why You Been Gone So Long. The lyrics to all the songs on CDs1-3 are printed on the reverse of the map.
* A beautifully laid-out, 96-page CD-size book containing a number of interesting quotations, articles and essays from, among others, Chris Campion, Ben Fong Torres, Kris Kristofferson, Kenny Rogers and Will Oldham (and John Milton and Henry David Thoreau), with numerous colour and b&w photos, many published here for the first time.
** The tracks on CD4, Better Days, are also available separately on a new vinyl album.
The tracks on CD4 (and therefore the vinyl album) are as follows:
1. If You Want Me To I'll Go (3:39) - publisher demo
2. Sunshine (3:03) - Mercury single 73036 - alternate mono version from the Looks Like Rain sessions
3. Sad Satin Rhyme - Mercury single 73036
4. Why You Been Gone So Long - publisher demo
5. I Don't Wanna Rock - publisher demo
6. Let Me Stay Awhile - publisher demo (note, for interest: this song was covered by Waylon on his Cedartown, Georgia album)
7. Flower Man - home demo, previously unreleased
8. Good Morning Dear - publisher demo
9. On Top Of Old Smokey - home demo
10. Interlude: How Many Times (Must The Piper Be Paid For His Song) - radio session +
11 .Better Days - radio session, previously unreleased +
12. How I Love Them Old Songs - radio session +
13. I Don't Wanna Rock - radio session +
14. I Don't Want Me No Big City Woman - radio session, previously unreleased +
15. You're Not My Same Sweet Baby Lady - radio session +
+ The Skip Weshner Show on KRHFM, Los Angeles, November 1970
These 3 stunning original albums were released during a very creative 4-year period between 1969 and 1973, and to me were something of a revelation in country music terms.
Looks Like Rain - truly a masterpiece, was released on Mercury Records in 1969, with liner notes by Kris Kristofferson (reproduced in the CD booklet). It included the first version of San Francisco Mabel Joy, She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye, a huge hit for Jerry Lee Lewis that same year, and 33rd Of August, covered the following year by Waylon Jennings. Mickey's experimental use of sound effects linking the tracks - thundery rain, a train whistling through the night, the wind chimes from his houseboat - brought a real sense of atmosphere to those wonderful songs, providing a mesmeric listening experience.
'Frisco Mabel Joy - followed in 1971, this time on the discerning Elektra label, contained 11 great songs, headed by An American Trilogy, though without the album title song, which was added as a bonus track when the album came out on CD many years later. For me, this album contains some of the finest (and saddest) songs I've ever heard. How Many Times (Must The Piper Be Paid For His Song), Frisco Depot, You're Not My Same Sweet Baby and Swiss Cottage Place are simply heartbreaking. I also love those memorable opening lines from The Future's Not What It Used To Be, and the album ends with the wry How I Love Them Old Songs. Priceless.
Heaven Help The Child - the follow-up album on Elektra in 1973 was also exceptional. The title track is a glorious, sweeping opus that ranges from '1912 in New York' to 'Paris in the '20s' through 'War is hell to live with' and ends by referencing Robert Burns's Auld Lang Syne. The album also includes the gorgeously poignant Sweet Memories, the bittersweet Sunshine, and another heartbreaker in Cortelia Clark, the story about a blind old street singer and a visit to the depot in Guthrie 'just to see the train' (Guthrie, Texas, is point no. 15 on the map). ('He was black and I was green'). A new, atmospheric version of San Francisco Mabel Joy rounded off the album.
Along with a handful of other creative writers such as Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall and Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury was instrumental in redefining and broadening the boundaries of country music in the late '60s and early '70s. These 3 early albums go some way to illustrate Mickey's important role in that development.
This wonderful CD box set really does Mickey and his music proud. Aficionados will have the 3 main albums of course, but all the tracks have been lovingly re-mastered, and CD4 would be a valuable addition to any Newbury collection. And the terrific Newbury's America map and lavish CD book are items to treasure.