Mickey Newbury: An American Trilogy

The interwoven instrumentals, plus the sound of rain and other noises, connect all the tracks to each other and 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.

Mickey Newbury

An American Trilogy

Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2011-08-23
UK Release Date: 2011-07-18

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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