So, who is the greatest composer of modern popular music? Is it the team of Lennon/McCartney? Bob Dylan? Maybe it’s Paul Simon? What about Eminem? There’s so much talent to consider that it seems an endless argument to try to define the king or queen songsmith.
In our age of information overload it’s easy to change one’s opinion on this topic. It seems that every page refresh reveals yet another songwriter we forgot about. Yes, the list is vast.
Most people have never heard of a Texas born poet named Mickey Newbury. In 1968 Mickey stunned the music industry with a feat that had never been achieved by any other artist. He had four songs in the top five on music charts in four different categories. Three of his tunes went to number one and one rose to number five. Amazing as it seems, the following songs were simultaneously topping the charts:
- Kenny Rodgers: “Just Dropped In (to see what condition my condition was in) Pop chart hit which launched Rodger’s career.
- Eddy Arnold: “Here Comes the Rain, baby” Country charts.
- Andy Williams: “Sweet Memories” Easy Listening charts.
- Solomon Burke: “Time Is a Thief” Rhythm & Blues charts.
Kris Kristofferson is quoted as saying “God, I learned more about songwriting from Mickey than I did any other single human being… I’m sure that I never would have written Bobby McGee, Sunday Morning Commin Down… if I had never known Mickey. He was my hero and still is.”
That same “hero” continued to write songs recorded by industry giants including Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Bill Monroe, Johnny Rodriguez, Hank Snow, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tammy Wynette, Ray Price, Don Gibson, Brenda Lee, Charlie Rich, David Allan Coe, Olivia Newton-John, Joan Baez, Tom Jones, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, John Denver, BB King, Linda Ronstadt, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Roberta Flack, and of course, the king himself, Elvis Presley. Countless others have recorded Newbury’s songs.
In fact, his songs have been recorded by hundreds upon hundreds of artists. To this date over 1,000 covers have been documented. Mickey himself recorded 25 albums of his own songs. During the 35 plus years of his career, he always considered himself a songwriter first and a singer second. Each album was critically acclaimed and highly desired by a passionate fan base all over the world.
One of his greatest works was his creation of “An American Trilogy”. This was a medley recorded by many, including Elvis Presley. In fact, it was the last song Elvis sang in his final concert.
Mickey was once referred to as “the Robert Frost of country music” but he was also labeled a “hippie cowboy”. He was the first of the so-called “outlaw” movement in the 70’s along with the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings etc. Unlike others, he never accepted this label and continued to create recordings using musical instruments and melodies never attempted on traditional country efforts.
His songwriting style was very deliberate. He would usually start with a melody he finger picked on his gut string guitar, then fill in the words. Often he would throw away verses in order to craft the perfect song. When he was finished the result would be a beautiful yet simple rendition. Mickey could literally paint a picture with his lyrics.
Take for example:
My world is like a river, as dark as it is deep
Night after night the past slips in and gathers all my sleep
My days are just an endless stream of emptiness to me
Filled only by the fleeting moments of her memory
Sweet memories, sweet memories
She slipped into the silence of my dreams last night
Wandering from room to room, she’s turning on each light.
Her laughter spills like water from the river to the sea
I’m swept away from sadness, clinging to her memory
Sweet memories, sweet memories
Although Newberry spent much of the 80’s retired, he ended the decade doing what he loved; recording and touring. He died from a prolonged battle with pulmonary fibrosis in late 2002. He was only 62 years of age.
Of his many awards and accolades Mickey was the youngest member to be elected into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame. He made more appearances on the Johnny Carson Show than any other individual. There will never be another songwriter to equal this Texas born poet.