Kacey Jones,
Sings Mickey Newbury
(IGO, 2006)

Mickey Newbury -- born Milton Sim Newbury Jr., in Houston, May 19, 1940 -- never attained stardom. He was too idiosyncratic a composer and performer for that, and his artist's vision found expression in no readily definable genre. In the 1960s, following a stint in the Air Force, he moved to Nashville, however, and signed with Acuff-Rose Publications, which pitched his songs to country and pop acts. Several of his songs, covered by others, became hits.

One was the lamely psychedelic but bubblegum-catchy "Just Dropped in," Kenny Rogers's first chart success (technically, under his band's First Edition rubric) and unlike any other song Newbury would write afterwards. Eddy Arnold had a hit on both country and pop charts with "Here Comes the Rain, Baby." Newbury didn't exactly write the Elvis hit "An American Trilogy" -- it consists of scraps of "Dixie," "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the spiritual "All My Trials" laid end to end -- but he claimed arranger's credit, and it's become something of a standard.

Newbury -- who died Sept. 29, 2002, in Springfield, Oregon -- influenced other, more famous Nashville songwriters, Kris Kristofferson most of all. He has been name-checked in various songs, for example the dopey 1977 Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson hit "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)," whose chorus hails "Newbury's train songs" -- no doubt to the incomprehension of all but scattered listeners. Over the years, almost till the time of his death, Newbury was recording albums of his own for a small but nearly worshipful band of admirers.

Nashville-based comedian Kacey Jones seems an unlikely individual to record an album's worth of Newbury's gloomy material. Newbury had one major theme: doomed romanticism, defined as much in the broadly philosophical sense as in the specifically erotic. In Newbury land, the skies are cloudy all day, and many are the discouraging words. Call him Leonard Cohen minus the drollness or mordant social commentary. Or you can think of Newbury as something of a 20th-century Stephen Foster, at least Foster the "serious" (i.e., parlor) composer. As far as his contemporaries go, Newbury surely most closely resembles Jimmy Webb.

Like Webb's, his compositions feel as if they should be country or folk songs, but mostly they aren't exactly, any more than they are precisely pop tunes (they certainly owe nothing to rock, a genre in which Newbury the songwriter, except for the above-mentioned "Just Dropped in," had no discernible interest). It's hard to imagine a song titled "Ramblin' Blues" that doesn't owe a debt to Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie, but Newbury's -- which Jones renders movingly -- is very much on its own. Actually, one suspects that Frank Sinatra could have sung the hell out of it; yet it's not really a Sinatra-style tune, either.

Jones, who produced the recording with intelligence and grace, puts the songs into modestly orchestrated arrangements, with guitars, pianos, horns and strings employed to conjure up near-visual representations of the world in which these vividly told stories are played out. Jones's vocals deliver the material in restrained but commanding style, so effectively that unless you're in an irritable or impatient frame of mind, you won't complain that the songs are overwhelmingly slow to mid-tempo and, well, mostly depressing. Only the overwrought "San Francisco Mabel Joy" crosses over the top.

I don't know how you'd improve on a tribute album so sensitively conceived and executed as this one. Jones' riveting interpretations lift these gorgeous, heartbreaking songs to a kind of tragic glory.

by Jerome Clark
14 October 2006

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