This is the mother lode
First, do not let the name of the Mickey Newbury box set, An American Trilogy confuse you. The box contains four, not three, compact discs. However, the set does include the trilogy of the pioneering country-rock singer-songwriter’s interrelated classic albums made between 1969-1973 in their entirety (Looks Like Rain, ’Frisco Mabel Joy, and Heaven Help the Child). But that’s not from where the compilation’s title gets its name. “An American Trilogy” was Newbury’s greatest hit. Yet the singer songwriter didn’t write any of the three songs that made up the track, the Southern Confederate tune “Dixie”, the Northern Union tune, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the African-American lament “All My Trials”. Newbury just arranged them together.
Newbury’s version was never popular. It was Elvis Presley, who used the song as his showstopper during his live performances, that made “An American Trilogy” famous. So while naming this 4-CD set “An American Trilogy”’ is confusing, this song is for what Newbury is most known.
Newbury had released two albums before recording “An American Trilogy”. He disowned the first one, reportedly because he did not like how the record company produced it. So he signed with a different record label with the provision that he got to be in charge of production. That album is included here, Looks Like Rain,, from 1969. Newbury creatively added the sound of a rainstorm throughout the record in a way that linked the songs together. He impeccably mixed the use of instruments and sound effects in other ways as well, such as the dreamlike chorus of voices mixed with rough rural strings that adds a celestial level to the material.
The most striking aspect of Looks Like Rain, is not its aural property per se, but it lies in the intimacy of the record. Newbury sounds as if he’s revealing his innermost thoughts, feelings, secrets, and stories. He sings of pain and lost love in starkly aching terms (“Just like the dawn, my heart is silently breaking / and with my tears it goes tumbling to the floor”) on songs like “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye”. He reveals the pleasures and perils (“He can see what they can’t understand”) of not being grounded in reality on “33rd of August”. However, emotional truth really drives the disc, and that’s best conveyed on the cut, “San Francisco Mabel Joy”, a tragic love story about a teen-aged Georgia farm boy and a young Los Angeles prostitute. Newbury tells the six-minute-plus tale in a steam-train tempo that lets the details linger and suggests the longevity and truth of the characters’ love. They may not be Romeo and Juliet, but then again, they may be.
The song was so good that Newbury borrowed it’s title for his second album, 1971’s ’Frisco Mabel Joy. However, that song did not appear on this record. This is the one with “An American Trilogy,” which opens the record and sets the tone. Newbury does not make the song into a triumphant ode, the way Presley did. His America is a more conflicted place, where his nostalgia for the South (“the place where I was born”) to the ending of slavery (“his truth is marching on”) to the pain of existence (“All my trials lord will soon be over”) to a long instrumental that ends unresolved, but just fades the way memories do.
This album is more reflective and somber than the previous one, as titles such as “How Many Times Must the Piper Be Paid for his Song”, “Remember the Good” and “The Future’s Not What it Used to Be” suggest. Newbury’s passion has cooled. Again, the sound of rain, trains and other atmospherics tie the songs together conceptually. Instead of becoming more cerebral and trying to figure out what it all means, Newbury takes a more spiritual approach. On tunes like “How I Love them Old Songs” and “You’re Not the Same Sweet Baby”, he acknowledges that he finds more comfort in reliving the past than being in the present, but these are not sad songs. He knows that people have always had the blues, as on “Mobile Blue” and takes solace in music and humor.
If Newbury seemed conflicted on 1971’s ’Frisco Mabel Joy, he’d gotten over it by the somewhat celebratory Heaven Help the Child. His musical palette was much more colorful and airy as he sings hopefully, “we’re all building walls / they should be bridges” and such. The background effects incorporate mechanical noises as well as human and natural ones, as he acknowledges the connections between people and the larger society. He redoes “San Francisco Mabel Joy” here. It’s a little shorter, and the words are maybe a shade more articulated, but his voice still chills the heart as he narrates the tragic love story’s details.
The other songs tend to be more personal even if the characters were created from his imagination, such as “Cortelia Clark”, about a train, a blind black man, and a young white boy. Newbury again expresses private feelings, most notably on the lovely tune for his wife, “Song for Susan”. The interwoven instrumentals, plus the sound of rain and other noises, connect all the tracks to each other and this one to the two previous discs. Critics and fans treat these three albums as one, and indeed they can be heard that way when played in succession.
The three albums are individually and collectively excellent, but the addition of rare and unreleased recordings from this era of Newbury’s life on disc four, entitled Better Days make this collection essential. Cuts such as “Flower Man” rail against the conformity of being hip back in the day (“He reads Edgar Cayce / He reads Erich Fromm / You can hear him quoting / Thoreau and Gibran / He’s become the echo / of the things he’s seen and heard”), while others such as “I Don’t Wanna Rock” poke fun at message music. There are also love songs, blues, a cover of “On Top of Old Smokey”, and lots of other goodies.
Newbury’s been covered by artists as talented and varied as Presley, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Solomon Burke, Eddy Arnold, Andy Williams, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers, Tom Jones, B.B. King, and dozens more. But this here is the mother lode: Newbury by Newbury—three of his best records from the high point of his career plus a bonus disc of cool obscurities. This is essential for fans of Texas singer-songwriters, Americana, idiosyncratic albums, or for anyone looking to have an intimate exchange with a sensitive man during a turbulent time in American pop culture history.
// Notes from the Road
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