Lyric Of The Week: Mickey Newbury, “An American Trilogy”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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When Mickey Newbury’s name comes up, you, even as a songwriter or a fan of songs, may say, “Who?” Because even though he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1980, he wasn’t all that well-known. Newbury’s albums from the late 1960s and early 1970s didn’t sell much, but they established him as a songwriter’s songwriter. He was considered “country” mostly because he had set up shop in Nashville, but his influences came from all forms of American music, and his material has been covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to B.B. King to Carol Channing. The song he is probably best-known for, though, is one he didn’t even really write. It’s a medley of 19th century songs he arranged into a composition that still somehow sums up who he was as a writer, an artist, and an American.

“An American Trilogy” was a track from Newbury’s album Frisco Mabel Joy, and it gained him favor with the popular radio listener, for a minute anyway. Americana before the term was routinely used, “An American Trilogy” was a medley of three uniquely American pieces: “Dixie,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “All My Trials,” a pseudo-spiritual adapted from a Bahamian lullaby that was later sung by protesting folksingers of the 1950s. The medley was the irony of ironies, a merging of songs close to the hearts of opposing Civil War forces, and to those involved in the class and race struggles that have always plagued mankind in general. Somehow Newbury put it all together to represent the fabric of his country as he saw it.

The song was recorded in suburban Nashville at Cinderella Sound, the studio of Wayne Moss, best known in musical circles for having played the iconic guitar line on Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman.” The studio is still in operation, and Moss says that, while songs are sometimes the product of inspiration that happens in the studio, Newbury knew exactly what he wanted to do with this one before he walked in the door. “Mickey had ‘An American Trilogy’ all conceived before he came in, it wasn’t the type of thing that came out of an idea in the studio,” Moss says. “He had it completely planned out. We recorded Mickey’s guitar and vocal first, then overdubbed the band.”

“An American Trilogy” made it into the top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100 in January of 1972, and Elvis Presley released his own version soon after. Newbury’s version actually reached a higher chart position than Presley’s and was really the definitive one, as Newbury sang the lyric far more introspectively and less entertainingly than The King. The song’s overall popularity also spoke to the naiveté of many who were familiar with its traditional words and melodies, but had little real clue of their significance to the people who had sung them on battlefields or plantations or in minstrel shows more than a century earlier.

In addition to being a writer of undeniable talent, Newbury was a fine tenor singer with a tension-filled vibrato, and he provided himself excellent guitar accompaniment ala James Taylor, with a strong command of the fretboard and smart, pianistic chord voicing choices. But after “An American Trilogy,” his name never appeared on the Hot 100 again. He was one of the great talents of the ‘70s who didn’t get the popular recognition he deserved. Given that he probably never recorded anything that didn’t mean something to him, Newbury, who died in 2002, must have truly cared about the social, historical and religious importance of the songs he combined to create “An American Trilogy.”

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