This Tuesday it will be 80 years since the birth of songwriter Mickey Newbury. Ideally we would have welcomed Gretchen Peters into the studio with her husband to celebrate his life by performing some of his songs. Gretchen has just released her own take on some of her favourite Mickey Newbury songs with her new album, ‘The Night You Wrote The Song.’
So, who was Mickey Newbury? Like Jerry Reed, Harlan Howard, The Bryants or Tom T Hall, Mickey Newbury is one of these names that comes up in conversation when you start talking to great songwriters about the ones they admire the most. Gretchen, of course, is the consummate songwriter. Her songs have been memorably covered by others but she is also a troubadour who (in normal times) would be out on the road on tour for a good part of any given year. Like Mickey Newbury, she has ploughed her own furrow, and although they both share a love and deep understanding of country music, their own art has to be understood in a wider context.
Mickey Newbury arrived on the song writing scene in the sixties after a short career in the military. He moved from Texas to Nashville and was signed up to the most famous and successful publishing house on Music Row, Acuff-Rose. His first big country hit by Don Gibson, Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings went top ten but that success was superseded when Tom Jones made it a world wide hit record. By 1968 he had Top 5 hits on 4 separate US charts: Pop/ Easy Listening/ Country and R ‘n B with four different songs. No one would ever surpass this success. In fact it’s all the more remarkable as Mickey Newbury wrote 100% of these songs. There was no collaboration. Even as I write this I’m double checking the facts as it’s so remarkable.
Such was the scale of Newbury’s success that, on the back of these hits, he began a solo recording career. It’s here the story becomes a little less clear except for one ever riding fact: Mickey Newbury pursued a very singular style. There really are very few artists of that or any other time who sound like him. Gretchen herself would say there’s something of Leonard Cohen about his work. It’s true too, there’s poetry and a lyrical expansiveness in Newbury’s songs that separate them from most of that post Laurel Canyon generation. When I listen I think more of Rod McKuen and Jimmy Webb, but I’m scratching my head to find other parallels.
So it really is great that in 1977 while studying at college, the young Gretchen Peters fell in love with an album called, Rusty Tracks and that her discovery led to a life long love of Mickey’s music. You’ll probably want to know if Gretchen ever met Mickey or if Mickey ever heard Gretchen. For that you’ll need to listen in to a very special conversation I recorded last week with her from her lockdown location in Florida. It was there she and Barry Walsh (her husband and musical co conspirator) recorded some special versions of tracks from the album and Gretchen told me all about the record and her love of the songs. We’ll play all of that out this Tuesday evening.