Mickey Newbury: Houston's Forgotten Genius

"Hank Williams' pain songs, Newbury's train songs/ And 'Blue Eyes Cryin' In the Rain'

- Willie Nelson & Waylon Jennings, "Luckenbach, Texas"


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Lonesome, Onry and Mean was sitting around having a few cold pops the other night when we put on The Best of Mickey Newbury. It wasn't long before the room got quiet; nothing we were yacking about was as important as the sounds coming out of the speakers.

During "It Makes Me Wonder If I Ever Said Goodbye," which was covered by both Johnny Rodriguez and Kenny Rogers, one of our songwriter compadres said, "That may be the greatest tearjerker ever written."

"She at times still comes around, though she's someone else's now
I can't lay it down no matter how hard I try
Yes, I leave her then I find, she's no farther than my mind
Makes me wonder if I ever said goodbye

After our listening session, we Googled up a YouTube performance of this monster track and forwarded the link to few of our musical friends.


"Makes Me Wonder If I Ever Said Goodbye"

The next day, Nashville producer/publisher and former Houstonian Frank Liddell, whose credits include all kinds of Grammys and CMA awards for his work with Chris Knight, Jim Lauderdale, Miranda Lambert, his wife Lee Ann Womack and others, wrote back:

"This is one of my favorite Newbury songs of all time. I love this version. Years ago when I worked with Mark Chesnutt, I tried unsuccessfully to get him to record it on several occasions. I was obsessed with it."

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Outside the semi-closed world of Nashville's Music Row and a bevy of music geeks and fanatics that includes former No Depression editor Peter Blackstock, few people recognize Newbury or grasp the over-arching, almost unfathomable influence of this old Houston boy on modern country music.

Although he was only in Nashville less than a decade before dropping out and moving to Oregon, Mickey Newbury altered the musical landscape of Nashvegas and America as few writers and performers have ever done. To call him the Stephen Foster or Scott Joplin of his time would not be much of a hyperbolic stretch.

Disillusioned by Elvis Presley producer Felton Jarvis's production on his first RCA album, Harlequin Melodies, Newbury, who virtually disowned the album, asked to be released from his recording contract. His only requirement for his next deal was that he be able to produce his own records or choose his own producer.

The records that emerged from engineer Wayne Moss's garage studio - Looks Like Rain (1969), 'Frisco Mabel Joy (1971) and Heaven Help the Child (1973) - are Newbury's masterpieces. They not only sent shock waves through the Nashville establishment, but to some extent revolutionized American music.

No one had ever written songs like these, and no one had ever recorded them in such a direct, minimalist approach with virtually total disregard for the commercial trends of the day. Newbury and Moss dimissed the usual gloss-and-glitz Nashville pop claptrap and cut the songs exactly as they felt them - an unheard-of thing in Nashville, where a few producers and engineers had a "Nashville sound" formula that all songs were made to conform to.

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