In the late 1960s, Mickey Newbury was one of a handful of outsider songwriters
who started slipping poetry and folk music influences into the Nashville
mainstream. His complex, emotional story songs owed more to Leonard Cohen than
Newbury was born and raised in Houston. In his teens, he took up the guitar and
wrote poems. Soon he was a regular performer at local coffee houses. At the
same time, he was absorbing influences from the black R&B and blues clubs. His
group, the Embers, briefly had a deal with Mercury Records. After high school,
he joined the Air Force and was stationed in England for three years. Upon his
return, Newbury set out in his old Pontiac, traveling around the South, playing
gigs and living the bohemian life.
In 1965, he settled in Nashville and signed a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose
Publications. In 1967, his song "Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings" became a
country Top 10 hit for Don Gibson and a pop hit for Tom Jones. In 1968, Newbury
took that crossover appeal even further, sending four songs into the Top 5
across four different charts. It's a feat that's never been repeated.
As he placed more songs with artists from Andy Williams to Kenny Rogers to Ray
Charles, Newbury staked out his own recording career. On albums like
Harlequin Melodies (1968) and Frisco Mabel Joy (1971), he wove his
soulful singing and writing through inventive arrangements bursting with
everything from chamber pop to psychedelic rock. One of the songs from the
latter album, a patchwork suite of folk, blues and spirituals called "An
American Trilogy," became a show-stopping set-piece for Elvis
Always shy of the spotlight, Newbury grew more reclusive as the '70s
progressed, and during the '80s he took a hiatus from the music business to
spend time with his family. In the early '90s, he started writing, recording
and performing again, turning out some of his most remarkable work. He died of
emphysema in 2002.
While he never became as famous as some of his contemporaries, Newbury was the
quintessential songwriter's songwriter. John Prine said, "Mickey Newbury is
probably the best songwriter ever." Kris Kristofferson said, "I'm sure that I
never would have written ‘Bobby McGee' and ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down' if I
had never known Mickey. He was my hero and still is."