Catching Up With Mickey Newbury

Originally posted December 8, 2008

I was always a step or two behind Rick when it came to music.

When we were in our early teens in the mid-1960s, it seemed as if he knew all the titles of all the songs on the radio and the performers who recorded them. I, as I’ve said here before, knew a few and those just the most obvious: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Supremes and a couple of the other Motown acts that were inescapable. A kid would’ve had to be from Mars not to recognize songs by those folks.

And there were times I felt as if I were from Mars or some other place equally distant, as lost as I sometimes felt when we sat somewhere with the radio playing. Eventually, as I’ve written before, I shifted my ears and got my card stamped so I could rummage around in Top 40, becoming familiar – as 1969 turned into 1970 – with almost all of the stuff playing on the radio.

At the same time, Rick was skipping ahead. Oh, he listened to Top 40 as I did and knew that area of the music universe as well as I was coming to know it. But he was also beginning to dig into areas of the rock world that I had no clue existed. He was one of the first people I know who talked about Gram Parsons and his work with the International Submarine Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers. He was the only person I knew back in 1970 with a copy of the Byrds’ amazing 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. One night as we were listening to a radio station from someplace far away, we heard the strains of Mason Proffit’s “Two Hangmen.” The song astounded me; Rick already knew it.

And one day in late 1971, as we were doing nothing useful over at his house, Rick put on a 45 he’d bought recently: “An American Trilogy” by Mickey Newbury. The gentle and bittersweet melding of “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “All My Trials” was so good that I had him play it twice. “I gotta get the album this comes from,” Rick told me. “I gotta.”

I don’t know if he ever did. Our paths diverged during the years I was in college, while he finished high school and began to find his own way into his adult years. I honestly forgot about Mickey Newbury for the most part, though he came to mind as I cringed whenever I happened to hear Elvis Presley’s bombastic take on “An American Trilogy.” Then, in August 2001, in a suburban Twin Cities thrift shop, I came across In A New Age, a 1988 CD that includes a live version of “An American Trilogy” and some other very nice tracks.

That put Newbury back on my watch list of performers. I learned that the 1971 album that included the trilogy, ’Frisco Mabel Joy, was released on CD in 2000 but it’s evidently out of print. I saw one copy offered through GEMM this morning that was priced at something more than $58. (There is some Newbury on vinyl out on the ’Net, but the sheer numbers of titles on my watch list mean I’ve never gotten around to buying any of it. I don’t think I’ve ever run into any of Newbury’s albums in the stores I’ve haunted over the years; if I had, they’d be on my shelves.)

And it was about a year ago that I came across a rip of ’Frisco Mabel Joy. I’m not sure where I found it, but it’s a good enough album that – after “The Future’s Not What It Used To Be” popped up the other day – I thought I should share it.

I’m not sure whether you’d call Newbury – who died in 2002 – a folk-singer, a country artist or a singer-songwriter. His influences seemed to come from all of those genres, and all are reflected in his music. And the man could write a song.

I still don’t know the album as well as I’d like to. Even so, some songs stick out. My favorites from ’Frisco Mabel Joy are the melancholy “Frisco Depot,” “How Many Times (Must The Piper Be Paid For His Song)” and the song from which the album’s title comes, “San Francisco Mabel Joy.” (Newbury recorded versions of “San Francisco Mabel Joy” on three albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s and included a new version on In A New Age in 1988.)

Tracks:
An American Trilogy
How Many Times (Must The Piper Be Paid For His Song)
Interlude
The Future’s Not What It Used To Be
Mobile Blue
Frisco Depot
You’re Not My Same Sweet Baby
Interlude No. 2
Remember the Good
Swiss Cottage Place
How I Love Them Old Songs
San Francisco Mabel Joy

Mickey Newbury – ’Frisco Mabel Joy [1971]

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