Mickey Newbury grew up in Houston wanting to become a songwriter. In the event, he became one of the several talented songwriters who brought new life to country music in the late sixties and early seventies. Some such as Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall and Kris Kristofferson went on to successful performing careers of their own. Others such as Townes Van Zandt and Newbury also recorded their own work, but never had the breakthrough they deserved in their own right.
As Kurt Wolff writes in his Allmusic profile, Newbury infused his songs with haunting beauty and spiritual melancholy, creating an impressive collection of introspective, emotionally complex songs. Newbury worked the vein of loveworn desolation repeatedly and deeply. His work reflects a love of folk and blues combined that gives it an extra dimension.
Newbury’s dislike of touring and his long break from the business contributed to his failure to break out as a performing artist. He nevertheless compiled a rich body of work early in his career, as can be heard on “Winter Winds.” He also roused himself to produce a latter-day classic on “A Long Road Home,” released in 2002 just before he died, way too young, at age 62.
Newbury had a Top 30 hit in 1972 with “An American Trilogy,” his original arrangement of three classic American songs. The video above (with Marie Rhines) provides a glimpse of his interpretive and performing skills. The video derives from Newbury’s “Live at the Hermitage” DVD that is available here.
Elvis of course put his own stamp on the song, but Memorial Day provides a good occasion to revisit Newbury’s inspired version of the trilogy. A discographic essay on Newbury’s site discusses the origin of the song as well as its status as the most recorded of Newbury’s songs:
Can you imagine combining Civil War era songs of the North, South and African-American slaves into one unified movement? On a starry evening in May of 1970 while appearing on stage at the Bitter End West, Newbury did just that. The impromptu arrangement just came together on that magical night and in one moment of brilliant inspiration. Since then, “An American Trilogy” has become one of the most interpreted pieces in history with 443 versions, ranging from Dolly Parton to the London Symphony Orchestra to Elvis Aron Presley’s glitzy Vegas production, eagle cape and all. At the end of 1999, some 600,000 people in the United Kingdom selected Presley’s version of “Trilogy” as the number one American song of the millennium.
Newbury’s performing and songwriting peers remained attentive to his work, with more than a thousand artists covering his songs over the years. The 2000 tribute “Frisco Mabel Joy Revisited for Mickey Newbury” showed his continuing influence on a younger generation, with his old buddy Kristofferson weighing in as well.