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Mickey Newbury - An American Trilogy

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Artist: Mickey Newbury

Album: An American Trilogy

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jun. 6, 2011

Imagine a hired-gun songwriter approaching a Nashville record label with a grand plan to write a trio of pensive experimental concept records about loneliness and regret in the face of an unforgiving American landscape. It’s not an easy sell now, and it wasn’t a sure bet when Mickey Newbury pulled it off more than 40 years ago. But those three albums — Looks Like Rain, ‘Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help the Child — represent an outré high-water mark of sorts in the country singer-songwriter era. Drag City has reissued them, plus a collection of outtakes and rarities (Better Days) in a deluxe box set under the title The American Trilogy (the albums are all available as individual LPs as well), positioning Newbury for a well-deserved rediscovery and re-evaluation.

Playing the dual role of recording artist and songwriter, Newbury never quite found the success garnered by those who recorded his songs — Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Tammy Wynette, Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt among them. Yet in 1969, his personal vision drove him into makeshift Cinderella Studios, outside of Nashville, with a team of ace sidemen to record Looks Like Rain. The album would challenge production and recording possibilities in country music and, in terms of its pure individuality, presaged the Outlaw movement that would arrive a few years later.

Though ostensibly a country album, Looks Like Rain showcases Newbury’s versatility as a songwriter, as he works in a folk mode while embracing gospel fervor and pop arrangements. The album is also a product of its time, utilizing light psychedelic embellishments, sound effects (particularly the relentless patter of drizzling rain), and a haunting production quality the reflects one man’s dark night of the soul. Yet for all of the contemplation on tracks such as “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” and “It Looks Like Baby’s Gone,” there’s an unmistakable beauty and humanity that keeps the album from ever becoming simply dour.

The approach to Looks Like Rain is expanded upon on‘Friso Mabel Joy, as women continue to leave, the rain continues to fall, and the possibilities of the studio continue to grow. Shimmering guitars and keyboards provide brooding accompaniment, wraithlike back-up vocals emerge from the sonic ether, and full-blown synthesizer interludes intermingle with songs about late nights and hard drinking. Indeed, Newbury’s subjects are not teetotalers. On the churchy “The Future’s Not What it Used to Be” the protagonist leaves Decatur, Ga., for Skowhegan, Maine, but winds up in Seattle “so drunk and so rattled,” giving new meaning to term “lost soul.”

By the time of 1973’s Heaven Help the Child, it would become clear that Newbury had as much in common with artists like Harry Nilson and Jimmy Webb as he did with rebel folkies like Townes Van Zandt. Tracks veer into easy listening territory, utilizing lush countrypolitan arrangements (“Sweet Memories”), while the sound of chirping birds on “Sunshine” introduces a much needed break in the album-long storms of Looks Like Rain and ‘Frisco Mabel Joy.

This set is Americana of the first degree, yet Newbury’s America isn’t exactly bursting with opportunity. When he strolls through “Dixie” and unfurls “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on ‘Frisco Mabel Joy’s “American Trilogy” (the inspiration for this collection’s title), it plays as a requiem for a land big on promises and short on hope, and far removed from the saccharine upwelling of patriotism that Elvis Presley turned the song into shortly after its release. But as the mere existence of these strange, singular records makes clear, the country of Newbury’s mind remains a place where the individual, even when he’s down and out, is still a king.

By Nate Knaebel

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