An American Trilogy
Can a songwriter who has been covered more than a thousand times be considered a cult artist? Houston’s Mickey Newbury was revered by his peers. Artists as disparate as Willie Nelson, Tom Jones, and Nick Cave have covered his songs; he was famously name-dropped in “Luckenbach, Texas.” Yet as a recording artist, Newbury (who died in 2002) remained faceless. Though widely considered a progenitor of the outlaw country movement (his 1969 thematic album Looks Like Rain predated Red Headed Stranger, often thought of as the first country concept album, by six years), his records don’t sound very “outlaw.” Newbury pioneered a lush style, heavy on steel and acoustic guitars, on Looks Like Rain, ’Frisco Mabel Joy (1971), and Heaven Help the Child (1973), which have been remastered and rereleased (along with a disc of rarities) on the limited-edition box set An American Trilogy (Drag City). The title track, a medley of “Dixie,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “All My Trials,” became a showstopper for Elvis in his Vegas years. It’s nice to hear the original version, as well as Newbury’s take on other songs that became hits for more-famous singers, like “Why You Been Gone So Long.” The diversity of production styles, which range from folk balladry disguised as country to Roy Orbison–esque soaring pop, is impressive. Yet these embellishments nearly overwhelm the material, which may be one reason Newbury’s sublime songs weren’t the success for him that they were for so many others.