An American Trilogy (Drag City)
If anybody remembers Mickey Newbury’s work at all—he died in 2002—it’s likely through Kenny Rogers’ trippy 1968 hit “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which Newbury wrote, or “An American Trilogy,” a medley of 19th-century songs he arranged for his 1971 album ’Frisco Mabel Joy. (The medley was later made much more famous by Elvis Presley.) Newbury’s greatest claim on our cultural memory is as a cryptic footnote, alongside the equally obscure Jerry Jeff Walker, in Waylon Jennings’ outlaw anthem “Luckenbach, Texas” (“Between Hank Williams’ pain songs and Newbury’s train songs and ‘Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain’/Out in Luckenbach, Texas, ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain”).
Most of Newbury’s catalog, especially his ’70s albums, has been only sporadically available during the CD era. So this box set reissue, containing painstakingly remastered versions of three of his earliest albums (Looks Like Rain, ’Frisco Mabel Joy, and Heaven Help the Child, all released between 1969 and 1973) and a bonus disc of outtakes and demos, is long overdue.
An American Trilogy isn’t the kind of overwhelming display of talent that makes you wonder how this guy was ever overlooked in the first place. Newbury’s gifts were quiet, understated, even delicate at times; his tone was mordant and slightly morbid. This set will take months to fully settle in, but over the course of four discs, the litany of bad luck, obsessive introspection, and loneliness already feels oppressive. Each individual song is at least very good, and some of them are masterpieces. Mostly, Newbury’s detailed narratives and his gentle deadpan tenor rescue his songs from country sentimentality.
On “An American Trilogy,” though, and particularly its “Dixie” section, it is precisely his commitment to the traditional ballad of Southern exceptionalism that makes Newbury’s rendition so affecting. And by the time of Heaven Help the Child, the last of these albums, he was just as likely to add strings and kettledrum to his arrangements than steel guitar or fiddle. Newbury was a romantic, closer in temperament to Leonard Cohen than Kris Kristofferson. And there’s a sense of doom hovering all over his work—in the songs themselves, in Newbury’s almost defiantly uncommercial approach, in the career of unmatched expectations that you know unfolded after these albums. It’s as heartbreaking as any song he wrote, and as inevitable, too, as if it was built into him somehow.