Mickey Newbury: The Song Poet

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Videos by American Songwriter

The Mickey Newbury camp is busy as a beehive these days. Newbury’s albums, beginning with his first release in 1969, are now available in CD format and he has been writing and recording new material. Stories From The Silver Moon Café was released in 2000 and he’s just recorded another album of new material to be released this year.The Mickey Newbury camp is busy as a beehive these days. Newbury’s albums, beginning with his first release in 1969, are now available in CD format and he has been writing and recording new material. Stories From The Silver Moon Café was released in 2000 and he’s just recorded another album of new material to be released this year.

Peter Blackstock of No Depression Magazine on the West Coast produced a tribute to Newbury, Frisco Mabel Joy Revisited, available on the Appleseed label.

“My primary motivation for putting together Frisco Mabel Joy Revisited was to bring Newbury’s songs to another generation, both in terms of the artists who participated and the audience who might hear it,” Blackstock says. “Too many times over the past couple of years I got blank looks from people when I mentioned Newbury’s names. I understood their unfamiliarity, as I had just discovered the records myself about five or six years ago.

“Somehow in the midst of Texas legends like Willie, Waylon, Kristofferson, Newbury’s name has largely been lost, and I just thought it was important to do something to address that.”

Newbury’s career as a songwriter stretches back to the early 60s, with 353 covers by country, pop, blues, R&B, even symphony artists. This averages out to approximately one cover every six weeks for 36 years.

“American Trilogy” has been the Hall of Fame member’s most recorded song, with 42 covers. It became Elvis’s signature song and is the last song that Elvis performed in public. In a “Music of the Millennium” poll conducted in 1999 by radio, television, and HMV Music in London, England, “Trilogy” ranked number four in Best Song category. With 600,000 tabulated votes, it was said to be the most definitive survey of that nation’s musical tastes ever undertaken.

“Trilogy,” oddly enough was a spontaneous creation that occurred onstage, Newbury says. He remembers it was at the Bitter End in Los Angeles. He had worked out a quarter-time, or ballad arrangement, of “Dixie.” But when he was onstage and had given himself over to the music, “Dixie” flowed into “Battle Hymn of the Republic” then merged with “All My Trials.” He remembers looking at folk singer Odetta who was seated in the front row and seeing tears on her cheeks. He changed a song the some consider divisive into a song of unification.

As a singer, although he has been called a “spellbinding performer with a voice so sweet he could sing the phone book,” Newbury has always been reluctant to tour. Perhaps twice a year he would do a concert or charity gig; or deliver an awesome performance on The Tonight Show or the Ralph Emery Show. Bit he estimates he has spent only about eight months touring during his entire career.

“Where your creativity is concerned, whether performing, writing, or whatever, you drink from a common well. I saw what performing did to songwriting, “Newbury says of his own personal experiences.

Also he didn’t enjoy performing the same way he enjoyed writing. He has always loved words. “A song writes because he has to,” Newbury says. “There are some people who write for the money; and that’s okay. But if there wasn’t a penny in it, I’d still write.”

And, for Newbury, it isn’t so much thinking up songs to write as it is simply catching the thoughts and ideas that flow from his subconscious. Sometimes an entire song, requiring no polishing whatsoever, arrives complete. “Doggone My Soul How I Love Them Old Songs” came to him while he was driving. His wife Susan wrote the words down as he dictated them.

“Too many writers try to write about something, instead of just letting the songs come,” Newbury says.

“The most difficult part of creating is distracting the analytical part of the brain which tends to get in the way of the creative side. The spatial side wants to create, but it can’t. It’s just an editor. I’ve told friends who were having trouble writing to get in their car and drive 1000 miles and they’ll write. Then the analytical part of the brain, the part that usually edits what you say and think, is occupied with driving.”

“I think sleep deprivation is also a very good way to tap into the creative part of the brain. I know a lot of writers who thought pills – uppers – would help them write. Once they figured out that it was just going without sleep, they didn’t need the pills anymore.

“I work on batches of songs at one time,” Newbury continues. “I never throw anything away. I’ll go back and pick it up maybe years later and I might write a verse. When you write like I write, emotions don’t change. I’m still writing songs about romances I had in my 20s. I write real fast, but when it stops, no sense belaboring it. I kind of hear a finished song in my head. When I stumble over a lyric I know it’s not right and I put it down.”

In response to which came first melody or lyric, Newbury admits, “It all comes together; usually the melody comes first. There are many layers of melodies, but the melody is not as important as the lyrics.

“Basically I love words and melody is just a frame for the lyric. I might put several sets of lyrics to one melody.”

Also, he says he never feels like he should be writing when he isn’t. It doesn’t bother him if he goes a year without writing. He knows that, when the words are ready, they will come. “Right now I’m sitting here looking at 40 songs I’ve written in the last year; I just got through writing a song that’s 20 minutes long. I don’t know what to do with it,” he adds with a laugh.

Ask him about hook lines and he laughs again. Every line better be a hook line or it’s not a good song.”



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