Mickey Newbury: Write Heart Songs, Not Clever Hooks

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

After a stint in the Air Force, Newbury bummed around while before hitting Nashville in the days when Kris Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall were still roaming the streets. It was the mid-60’s, and these writers along with others seeking to have their songs recorded, were to change the course of songwriting in Nashville. It was still a time when songs were pitched by the songwriter who took his guitar and went to play his latest composition for the artist, but these writers were making it a time when sensitive lyrics, timely topics and haunting melodies became the accepted norm, not the exception, for a country song. Newbury thinks the cycle may have come around again to that type of song.

“I’ve never pitched a song to an artist in my life, but if they ask me for one I’ll play something for them,” says Newbury, who’s had cuts by Joan Baez, Andy Williams, Waylon Jennings, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Kenny Rogers, Don Gibson, Eddy Arnold, the Everly Brothers and Willie Nelson. In 1966 the Nashville newcomer had four number one records on four different charts – pop, rhythm and blues, easy listening and country.

“I leave it up to the publisher to pitch my songs, or I did. I don’t have a publishing company right now, so I haven’t pitched any songs for the past five or six years. I think the cycle is coming back around to the simpler kind of music and Ill fall right back into it. Then the people who wouldn’t answer my phone calls will be calling me. I can already sense it; my phone rings more now than it did a couple years ago.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard the talk about why I haven’t been having success – I’m lazy or hard to get along with, or I’m a drug addict or whatever. But if I were having that success, it would be a whole different story. I’d be artistic then…sensitive, sorrowful, a sad broken man pouring out his life blood.”

Newbury may sound bitter, but a better description of his attitude would be uncompromising. He believes in the way he writes and what he writes and he refuses to come back to Nashville (he lives in Oregon) and be molded into the type of writer some would have him become. For the young writer, however, Newbury stresses that it is imperative for them to live in a major songwriting center.

“I lived here for 15 years,” he points out. “You really do need to be where it’s happening. Especially I’d say to the young songwriter go to New York City, you go to Nebraska. You have to go where there is a demand for what you are doing.”

Of the writers who are going to a recording center to sell what they do, Newbury sees some formula writing, but he is also encouraged by some of the songs he hears today.

“Writers today are better from the craft standpoint and they’re better at a younger age because their education is accelerated by their exposure to the world through television,” he says. “But in the country field, they are losing an understanding of what caused the sounds. The kid today might hear a harmonica and appreciate it but not realize that it was inspired by a freight train. So it wouldn’t evoke the same emotion in him that it evokes in me, ‘cause there is nothing that tears your heart out more than being stuck in a poor neighborhood watching a train fly across the Texas Plains and hearing the sound of that old steam whistle.

“I think some of the stuff that Phil Collins writes just kills me…Cat Stevens, Elton John’s early albums, Paul McCartney and John Lennon together. In country music, Thom Schuyler, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Jay Bolotin. Bob McDill kills me. I can’t understand how he writes like he does, ‘cause to him it’s a job. I’d love to get into his head and understand him ‘cause I’ve never been able to write like that. I go for a year and not write, and then I’ll write 20 songs.”

In closing, I’ll let one of Newbury’s peers, Kris Kristofferson, tell you what he thinks of this singer/songwriter.

“Mickey deliberately defies labels. He is neither country nor soul … Behind the deceptive simplicity of some of his lyrics, there are levels of mental landscape that can take you in some strange directions, past the edges of understanding … Johnny Cash has probably come the closest by calling Mickey Newbury a poet …”

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