Behind the Song: Mickey Newbury, “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye”

“She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye”
Written by Mickey Newbury and Doug Gilmore

The late Mickey Newbury was, by all accounts, a retiring man, ill-suited to the rigor and hype of the music business. As it turned out, this aspect of Newbury’s personality worked well for him. Although he recorded 15 albums over the course of his long career, he will remain known, foremost, as a songwriter. Perhaps to a greater extent than any of his friends and contemporaries (a list that includes Kris Kristofferson and Steve Young), Newbury specialized in material that crossed the boundaries of pop, country and soul. The quality of Newbury’s writing often approached that of great literature; but at the same time he never lost his directness, his ability to target the most primal and moving of human emotions. This combination-some might say contradiction-is what made him unique.

Newbury came of age in the r&b clubs of his native Houston, a city bursting with the hot sounds of Duke-Peacock Records (located in the city’s historic Fifth Ward). Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown thought so much of young Mickey’s talents as a singer that he dubbed him “The Little White Wolf.” Around the same time, Newbury began to haunt local coffeehouses and to perform his own songs. No doubt this early eclecticism-shuttling from folk to blues and r&b-inspired Newbury’s open-minded sensibility, and helps explain why his material has adapted so well to a range of musical contexts.

“She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” remains one of Newbury’s greatest songs, a statement of loss as stark and powerful as anything by Willie Nelson. It also contains one of the finest lines ever put to paper in a musical composition: “Just like the dawn/My heart is silently breaking.”

This isn’t so much a lyric as it is poetry that’s clear, simple and devastating. In 1969, “She Even Woke Me Up” became one of the pieces that resuscitated the career of rock’s most ornery pioneer, Jerry Lee Lewis. It was a good pairing, as “The Killer’s” dramatic instinct and rather florid vocal touches brought out all the pathos in Newbury’s words: “Morning’s come/And lord, my mind is aching/Sunshine’s standing quietly at my door.”

In a remarkable television performance recorded at the time (now thankfully preserved on YouTube) Lewis supports this line with one of his trademark piano rolls. It’s a moment that fuses rockabilly, blues, and country in a way Newbury must have loved. Equally beautiful is Newbury’s own performance of the song, also available for viewing on YouTube. Here, Lewis’ bravado is replaced with sadness and resignation, accompanied by a haunting string section that perfectly frames Newbury’s delicate voice.

But “She Even Woke Me Up” was sung just as well-perhaps even better-by the late Brook Benton, one of the great r&b stars of the 1950s, whose lush pipes and gospel sensibility made him a somewhat hipper answer to Nat “King” Cole. By the time Benton waxed Newbury’s song in the early 1970s (for Atlantic/Cotillion), he was no longer at the peak of his vocal powers, but his skills as an interpreter hadn’t diminished.

Benton starts out with a near whisper, singing softly in a way that embodies the quietude in Newbury’s lyrics. Even though his lover has departed in the middle of the night, he holds no ill feelings: “It’s her sorrow/It’s not another man.”

This generosity is typical of Newbury: even though he’s been wronged, he is still willing to look at things from the woman’s point of view. But then the tone shifts, with Newbury and Benton allowing themselves a flash of sardonic humor: “She never meant to be unkind/She even woke me up to say goodbye.” Here the musicians (including the great Charlie Freeman on guitar) come together behind Benton for a final repetition of the chorus, and his silky voice darkens into a near-snarl. But this moment is over almost before it starts, and in the end we’re left with an impression of complete loneliness and desolation.

To get you in the Newbury mood… you can pre-order/save the talented Gretchen Peters‘ upcoming collection The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury due out May 15 via Scarlet Letter Records.

3 Comments

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  1. Beautiful and well-written article Doug. As a side-note, the song was also recorded by Jerry Garcia of the Greatful Dead, before the band days. I found this article searching for information on that.

    Chris Newbury

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