Mickey Newbury: Robbing The Dragon

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Mick_at_coffee (1)
Photo courtesy Drag City Records

This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue, available on newsstands January 19. 

In 2012, after 16 splendid years in Middle Tennessee, I returned to my Oregon roots to keep an eye on my aging parents. Since then, one particular query has been oft repeated, usually going something like this: “Oh, you moved here from Nashville? Ever meet Mickey Newbury?” 

In 1973, the songwriter who influenced Music Row more than any other of his time also moved west to the land of ferns, pines, and dormant volcanos — but not for the purpose of reuniting with his own flesh and blood. Newbury’s post-Nashville destination, Springfield, Oregon, was his wife’s hometown — a downright wholesome place to live and raise kids.

Newbury was shaped by hardscrabble, post-war Houston. While the rapidly exploding metropolis Time magazine dubbed “Murder City, USA” made fertile ground for violent crime, musical aspirations provided a healthier pathway for East Texas’ more creative teens. In 1954, popped-collared, pomaded Newbury caught fellow towny Kenny Rogers singing tenor for The Sparks. Not to be outdone, Mickey assembled his own doo-wop ensemble, The Embers, and promptly poached The Sparks’ lead singer. Mickey’s group cut some singles, played Army bases, sock hops, and regular spots on local radio. Soon, they were touring the R&B circuit and B.B. King nicknamed blond, pink-cheeked, vertically challenged Mickey “The Little White Wolf.” Mickey was just 15 and non-filtered Camels were already stealing his breath away.

After running away to Galveston, then Shreveport, singing in strip clubs and lounges, Mickey’s homecoming was greeted with a tire-iron clubbing from local gang bangers. For an entire year, he locked himself in his bedroom, playing guitar, listening to country blues, reading and writing beat poetry. Ironically, that mugging gave Mickey the opportunity and impetus to study his true love — popular music, its rhythms, chord progressions, and especially the craft of lyric writing.

When Mickey finally emerged from exile, Kenny Rogers recalled, “I’d never seen such a transformation of talent in anyone in my life! He came out incredibly accomplished.” By 19, however, a discouraged Newbury had sold his guitar and was back brawling on the streets of Houston. To “… get out of the rut I was in…” Mickey enlisted for a four-year hitch in the Air Force. Stationed in England as an air traffic controller, early-’60s London was “… a party that lasted for three years.” After his 1963 discharge, he worked Gulf shrimp boats. During those long expeditions, he began writing songs in earnest.

When his father asked what he planned career-wise, Mickey said he was going to be a songwriter. “How long you gonna give it?” Dad parried.

“The rest of my life,” Mickey declared. Forty-some compositions later, Mickey signed with Nashville’s premier publishing house, Acuff/Rose. Although thrilled and honored to be associated with Hank Williams, The Bryants, Don Gibson, et al, Mickey resisted settling in Nashville and declined to accept an advance. Chronically broke, Newbury gigged across Texas and the Southeast, sleeping in his Pontiac or, for warmth, the occasional laundromat. After getting his heart and back broken, first by a Houston stewardess, secondly in a leap from a moving train, Mickey took his publisher’s advice and moved to Music City. 

On the drive east, a pair of new compositions bubbled up from Mickey’s subconscious. Combined, those two tunes have been recorded a total of 191 times — “Sweet Memories,” by artists as diverse as Etta James and Dottie West, and “Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings,” originally released by Tom Jones, then Don Williams. Mickey cashed his first royalty check — courtesy of Jones’ worldwide smash — toted a paper sack full of $100 bills to a Cadillac dealer, and bought a gold Eldorado — which became his new bedroom.

Since 1965, more than 1,200 artists have recorded over 1,500 versions of Newbury’s songs. Remarkably, during one week in 1968, four of his titles reached the top five on four different charts. Equally astounding is the list of fellow songwriting legends who have mined the Newbury catalog: Gordon Lightfoot, Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, and Willie Nelson, to name a few. If a songwriter’s songwriter ever trod terra firma, his name was Mickey Newbury. 

None other than John Prine exudes, “Mickey Newbury is probably the best songwriter ever.”

Some dude named Kristofferson concurs, “I’ve learned more about songwriting from Mickey Newbury than I did any other single human being. He was my hero and still is.”

Newbury’s songwriting inspiration came from his personal demons, the black moods likely exacerbated by a bout with childhood encephalitis and the brutal head trauma he suffered in his teens. According to friend/biographer Joe Ziemer, “He stated many times … he drew from unhappiness or ‘insanity’ to create music. He referred to the inner plunder as ‘Robbing the Dragon.’”

In Newbury’s own words, “I have fought pain all my life, and everything I’ve done has been out of fear … Music has never been anything but an escape from depression for me.” 

From Dave McElfresh: “Newbury writes songs so delicate they radically stretch country’s shit-kickin’ honkytonk persona in the opposite direction.”

Fortunately for us, Mickey Newbury came along when he did. I, for one, wonder whether this darkly sensitive renegade could score a single cut in today’s inch-deep bro-country world.

Daily Discovery: Charlie Abbott, “Sunday”

The Beatles Will Soon Be Available for Streaming