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All My Trials

Mickey Newbury

Autumn Whitehurst

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 12/25/2002

Let's go to Luckenbach, Texas

Willie and Waylon and the boys

This successful life we're livin's got us feudin' like the Hatfields and McCoys

Between Hank Williams' pain songs and Newbury's train songs

And "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain,"

Out in Luckenbach, Texas, there ain't nobody feelin' no pain.

More than 25 years after it was a monster hit on the country charts, most of the name-checking in "Luckenbach Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)" remains clear. Willie (Nelson) and Waylon (Jennings) revolutionized country music in the 1970s. And Hank Williams is, er, Hank Williams. But Newbury? Where, or who, or what is that?

The answer is Mickey Newbury. Even back in 1977, at the height of country outlawry, Mickey Newbury flew under the radar. And by September of this year, when he died of emphysema at age 62 in the little town of Vida, Ore., Newbury had been forgotten by all but the most devoted fans of country music, even though his legendary songwriting skills had earned him a slot in the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame by 1980.

One achievement alone would have earned that enshrinement. In 1966, just 26 years old, Newbury had No. 1 records on four different charts. Eddy Arnold took "Here Comes the Rain, Baby" to the top of the country listings, while Andy Williams scored with Newbury's "Sweet Memories" on the easy-listening roster. "Time Is a Thief" went to No. 1 on the R&B charts for Solomon Burke. And, finally, the Newbury-penned '60s anthem, "Just Dropped in to See What Condition My Condition Was In" dramatically improved the condition of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition on the pop/rock charts. Newbury's versatility as a writer is highlighted even further by the fact that both Joan Baez and Tom Jones have cut multiple titles by the songwriter.

Yet despite recording more than 18 albums himself, Newbury never achieved any significant success as a performer. It wasn't because he didn't have a voice--Newbury was blessed with a soft, feeling-soaked tenor that brought out the best in melancholy tunes such as "San Francisco Mabel Joy" and "Cortelia Clark," the latter about a blind street singer. He also had cleft-chin, all-American good looks that, in his younger days, gave him a bit of a resemblance to Kirk Douglas.

No, what kept Newbury from commercial success as a performer was his devotion to singing his music the way he wanted to. Even at the height of his songwriting glories, he referred to himself as a folk singer and never toured with a band, preferring the respectful atmosphere of "acoustic listening rooms" to honky-tonks and arenas, once saying, "I tell my audience stories, and have no desire to be background music for conversation, dance music in a lounge, or the latest fad."

This attitude perhaps foreshadowed the reclusiveness of Newbury's later years. By 1980, he had given up touring altogether and moved to Oregon, far from the hustle of Nashville's Music Row. In the last 20 years of his life, he released only four completed musical projects, the last, Lulled by the Moonlight, coming out in 2000.

A smart and sensitive man, Newbury may have been driven into virtual exile by the predatory practices of the music business. In an interview on the songwriter's Web site, www. mickeynewbury.com, Jodi Krangle asked Newbury, as a songwriter, to weigh in on the then-hot issue of Napster and whether "copyright law as we know it will survive the evolution of the Net." Newbury answered by saying, "I would sooner be robbed by a fan than a company. The fan may be broke and have but one choice. There is no excuse for the way the 'songwriter' is robbed by everyone from the record company to the broadcaster by the pure bottom line . . . greed."

With all the tribulations he suffered in the music business, there's one title in Newbury's catalog that he need not have worried about. Taking three Civil War-era songs--one Confederate, one Union, and one African-American--Mickey Newbury wove them into an "American Trilogy," a song that will belong to Mr. Elvis Aron Presley forever. The African-American tune, "All My Trials," could stand for Mickey Newbury. And for Elvis. And for us all.

If livin' were a thing that money could buy

You know the rich would live, and the poor would die

All my trials, Lord, soon be over.

(Jack Purdy)

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