Perhaps you remember a line from Waylon Jennings’ career-making hit, “Luckenbach, Texas”, that tips the cowboy hat to “Hank Williams pain songs and Newbury train songs.”
Everyone knows Hank Williams but only admirers of songwriters and music aficionados know Mickey Newbury, a songwriter who had a similar intellectual depth to Kris Kristofferson (a Rhodes scholar) before anyone knew Kristofferson.
Newbury died in 2002 of emphysema (Southerners always need to know what ‘kilt’ a person) at the young age of 62. Behind him, he left a road filled with remarkable songs, many of which mentioned trains or used the sound of a train whistle or a locomotive moving down the track in the background of a song.
In a message board post, his daughter, Laura, wrote, “My dad had a lyrical obsession with trains. Some of his fondest memories were of hopping a train to ride from city to city.”
Romantical idealism often embeds in a storyteller and makes him a memorable writer like Mickey Newbury.
In Don Reid’s “The Music of the Statler Brothers: Anthology of Music”, he told about the time that the Statlers and Newbury were staying in the same motel in Nashville. The Statlers were there to sing back-up on the Johnny Cash Show. It was a motel where songwriters and singers stayed when they came to Music City. It was 1968.
In Don’s recollection, Newbury received a royalty check while there for a massive hit he had written for Kenny Rogers and the New Edition, called “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In.) Don, always discrete and a true Southern gentleman, wrote that he wouldn’t tell how much the check was but Newbury was crazy with excitement and so happy that he took everyone out for a steak dinner and picked up the tab.
A few months after reading the book, we were having dinner at the Reids’ home. Ten people gathered around the table, clattering away. I was seated down to Don. I leaned over and reminded Don of that story in his book.
“Do you remember how much that check was?”
Don nodded and winked. You know I can’t stop there so I asked, “How much?”
He told me down to the dollar. I will keep his discretion but know this, my mouth dropped open and I hung onto my chair to keep from falling off.
“What? Seriously? In 1968?”
With that one check, Newbury and his family were set for life. It didn’t slow him down. He kept churning out poetic songs and wrote four number one records in 1968.
Perhaps his longest lasting musical contribution is not a song he wrote but, rather, one he arranged by taking bits of three very old songs that are in public domain. Now, public domain takes claim to a song 75 years after the death of the songwriter, a law created about 25 years ago to ensure that a songwriter’s children and perhaps grandchildren could receive royalties before it lapsed into public ownership (no residuals are paid).
By taking the battle songs from the Civil War: “Dixie” (Confederates) and “Battle of Hymn of the Republic” (the Union) then sandwiching between them an African American spiritual (originally Bahamian), Newbury created “An American Trilogy.”
Elvis Presley heard the medley on a Newbury album and immediately claimed it for his concerts and made a hit record for RCA. Elvis’ huge musical arrangements with flutes, trumpets, Southern gospel piano and extraordinary background vocals (in concert, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps and the Sweet Inspirations would add dynamic effects.) It is powerful.
Elvis Radio uses it frequently in its playlist, it is available on recording, on Elvis’ Aloha Special and YouTube.
As an arranger of public domain songs, Newbury received a royalty (less than original songs) but, more importantly, he left a powerful legacy.
And, too, “American Trilogy” has probably made many more royalties than that enormous check he received in 1968.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should).” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]