In the early 1960s, when Mickey Newbury returned home from three years of Air Force duty, he lived and traveled the Southland in a ’54 Pontiac, chasing his songwriter’s dream. He would play gigs, when he wasn’t working on a shrimp boat, and made his way to Nashville, where he signed his first publishing contract with Acuff-Rose in 1964. A couple years later, Mickey scored his first Top 10 country hit with Don Gibson’s take on “Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings.” Another couple years after that, Tom Jones turned the tune into an international hit. That same year, Mickey landed three number one songs and one number five on four different music charts: The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” on the pop chart; Andy Williams’ “Sweet Memories” on the easy listening list; Solomon Burke’s “Time is a Thief” on the R&B roster; and Eddy Arnold’s “Here Comes the Rain, Baby” on the country chart. No one else has ever repeated that success.
As he went along, Mickey enjoyed great success as a songwriter, but he also pursued a career as an artist, in his own right. His first album, Harlequin Melodies, came alongside those milestone accomplishments in 1968, and would be followed by two dozen more prior to his death in 2002. He was an artist’s artist, a songwriter’s songwriter, as evidenced by the gratitude and respect many of his better-known peers had for him.
Though perhaps not a peer, generationally speaking, singer/songwriter Gretchen Peters has an immense amount of gratitude and respect for Mickey. Reading their stories, it’s easy to see why. Not only do they share a certain renegade spirit, but, like Mickey, Peters has seen her biggest successes as a songwriter, having penned hits for Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Faith Hill, and others. Still, she continues to indulge her creative muse as an artist… and thankfully so. Her new Blackbirds album is a stunning collection of heartfelt and haunting tales that dig deep down into dark topics most folks don’t dare go.
All told, Mickey landed more than 1,000 covers as a songwriter, but he still pursued a career as an artist, making 25 records over the course of 35 years. What is it that makes it not enough — and this might be true for you, too — to rest on the songwriting laurels and go after the spotlight, as well? Doesn’t really seem like ego, so…
I think the reason I latched on to him is because he is an artist. Whatever his accomplishments were, in terms of songwriting, to me, he’s first and foremost an artist. That’s why he made those records. Those records, to me, that’s his art. His songwriting is his art, in general. But I guess I identified with him because I saw that he was making these ethereal, oddball, weird records. Even for Nashville in the late ’60s, early ’70s, even for the psychedelic era, they were out there with reverb and all this stuff. He was going for something, artistically.
I didn’t know him, sadly. I wish I had. I was here when he was still alive, but my feeling about him is that he was going for something, artistically, and his songs came out of him because they had to. They were almost like a by-product. He was doing something more than just writing songs for people to cover. He was trying to make art. I was just completely drawn to him. He was like a magnet for me. Now, looking back, I think that’s why. He obviously had everything it took to be a hit Nashville songwriter, but he had this artistic soul. His records never did that well, commercially, but, to me, they were just gems. And they were an insight into his artistic soul, in a way. I felt like there were parallels for me, with him… with my own career and just the way I looked at things. He really put his whole self into those records and I love them.
He did have some commercial success… at least as a songwriter. In 1968, Mickey had four songs in the top five of four different charts (including three number ones) — a feat that no one has repeated. What made his songs so universal?
There are probably a couple of things at work. One of the things is that, in that era, television was great equalizer. People like Glen Campbell were visible to people who didn’t really know country music or weren’t exposed to it. I know this because I was a kid growing up in New York and I didn’t hear country music on the car radio, but I was exposed to it on TV. Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell… I saw John Hartford do “Gentle on My Mind” on TV. Bobbie Gentry was on TV. I saw Bobbie Gentry and thought, “What is that?! She’s awesome!” In my mind, she wasn’t that different from Judy Collins. She was just sort of a Southern-flavored folk artist, really. So I think it was partly that you could have that crossover success. Things were more fluid because of the television aspect of things.
But I think, also, Mickey himself… those songs are so universal. And the thing that I loved the most about him was the deep capacity for sadness that he had. I identified with that in a big way, a really big way.
That’s one of Mickey’s quotes is that everyone thought he was an unhappy fellow, but he wasn’t because he wrote his sadness.
And I totally get that. I instinctively knew that. I have said basically the same thing. I’m not unhappy. I have a very deep well and I can draw on it. I’ve always had a capacity to draw on sorrow, but it doesn’t mean in my everyday, going-to-the-grocery-store-walking-the-dog life that I’m unhappy at all. But I sensed that in him and I know it in me.
I think it’s just this ability to draw on that. And the desire to draw on that comes from the fact that I really believe that joy, or ecstasy, and sorrow are *this* close to each other. They are right next to each other. And, really, what they are is intensity of feeling. And that was always what I was going for. Still, every time I walk into the room and sit down to write, it’s what I hope
I’m going to get to, which I don’t always, but I try. And I think that’s what he got to. I think he got to that very deep level of… his songs were just…

There’s a great Kris Kristofferson quote about his lyrics. He said, “behind the deceptive simplicity of some of his lyrics, there are levels of mental landscape that can take you in some strange directions, past the edges of understanding.” Were there specific songs or even specific lyrics that hit you and made you want to write your version of them?
Wow. I wish I’d said that! Yes. And there were almost like two Mickey Newburys. The one that wrote “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” to me, that’s a songwriting lesson in making the song a little movie. Just show me what this guy is doing as he goes through his day and let me see the movie. Also, in that song… “It’s not her heart, Lord. It’s her mind. She didn’t mean to be unkind.” The empathy, even for the other… for both of them… this ability to get inside of both of the main characters in the song. I think I probably wrote “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” that way because of that. Because, somehow, it’s more devastating to see that both of them are unable to come together. I would be willing to bet that’s why I wrote that one that way because I learned from that lyric. That’s kind of the Mickey Newbury classic country pain song that they talk about in Luckenbach, Texas.
But then there’s the folky Mickey Newbury and that equally appealed to me, too. There’s a line in “The Sailor.” It’s a line about Nashville and how it just devastated him. “Oh my Daddy was a Sailor. The salt is in my blood. And here I am in Nashville, bound deep in this mud.” It’s the more personal songwriting side of him. I call it the more folky side, but it’s really the more confessional singer/songwriter side of him. There’s so much insight into himself, so much said, in just a few lines about the devastation that he was feeling.
And then the scope of what he wrote… he was so unafraid. “Paris in the ’20s”… that whole song… a country writer writing that? The scope of that is amazing to me. His lack of boundaries was another thing I related to. I always felt, almost immediately upon arriving here, I felt the constraints about what you can and can’t write about. And I really kind of kicked at the stall a lot about that. I definitely felt like he was a kindred spirit that way. I think he felt like the whole world is fair game for him to write about and he did. “Saint Cecelia” is another one. It’s very Leonard Cohen-esque. He went from that to “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” And that’s a pretty big scope.
Like you said, he had that independent streak and that forward-thinking. So many artists… Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and others owe him a debt. And, yet, he’s not nearly as well-known as they are. Is that a travesty? Or is he properly revered in the circles that count?
Oh, I think it’s a shame. I think it’s a shame that people don’t know him. I spread the Gospel of Newbury wherever I go when people ask me “Who are your influences?” I think it’s a shame. People should know. People should be able to enjoy his wonderful records. The record that he made called Rusty Tracks, I literally wore the grooves out of it. They were concept records, too. Frisco Mabel Joy and Rusty Tracks… well, he made a lot of them. But the whole idea of making concept records… there had to be a lot of people in this town going, “What are you doing?!” I think that he just followed his nose and did what he wanted. I so admire it and I so identify with it. But, yeah, I think he absolutely should be more well-known.

This article originally appeared on the Bluegrass Situation.