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Music

Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Photo: Gina Binkley / Courtesy of the Missing Piece Group

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.

Gretchen Peters fell in love with Mickey Newbury's songs in her late teens while growing up in Boulder, Colorado. "I was just finding out about country music," she recalls. "I had this friend who worked at a used record store. He saw what I gravitated toward and started putting albums into my arms. Mickey Newbury was in that mix."

The impression his music made was both immediate and lasting. "I was fond of him because he defied even my rudimentary understanding of what country music was, what the boundaries were," Peters says. "He was, to me, one of the very first outlaws. I fell in love with his records before I even realized what a songwriter he was. His records were crazy and weird sometimes, idiosyncratic, kind of like long soundtracks. They had elements of folk music and rock and roll, which I had grown up listening to. He was way into country music for me."

Although perhaps best known for the 1968 hit from the First Edition "Just Dropped In (To See What My Condition My Condition Was In)", Newbury released a series of genre-defying albums throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. Writing tunes with a smart literary bent, he paved the way for the outlaw country movement, though he was never fully part of that scene. His influence on the narrative songwriting of Kris Kristofferson is undeniable.

Willie Nelson's brief run on Atlantic Records (Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages) not only demonstrates why Nelson was better off in Austin than Nashville, but suggests he was more than familiar with Newbury's ability to craft emotionally true songs that revealed more complexities than the average three-minute song. Newbury is also name-checked on the Chips Moman/Bobby Emmons composition "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)", a 1977 hit for Waylon Jennings, which featured a guest appearance from Nelson.)

Though artists such as Solomon Burke, Tom Jones, and Eddy Arnold had mainstream success with Newbury tunes, such heights for his own efforts eluded the Texas-born musician. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1980, but the honor did little to raise his profile. He recorded only three albums in that decade and only one studio effort in the 1990s. At the time of his death in 2002, there had been a handful of critical re-appraisals of his work and some reissue campaigns (notably, the massive 1990s box set The Mickey Newbury Collection. But a younger generation of writers embraced his work, including Bill Callahan, Vampire Weekend, and Dax Riggs, providing him some underground cache.

Peters' collection of Newbury songs, though, is the record that Newbury lovers could have only dreamed of. Eschewing standard notions of making an album celebrating the songs of a beloved artist, she followed her heart and her ear. "One of the first things I threw out the window was the idea that I was going to record things that were recognizable," she says. "That ruled out so many wonderful songs. By the same token, I didn't rule out doing some of the songs that were hits. I said, 'Let's throw chart history right out the window and let's go purely on songs.' The only other criteria became, 'Do I think I can tell this story effectively? Can I bring this across?' It really becomes not dissimilar from choosing songs for your own record."

Though she didn't know Newbury personally, she says that they share some of the same qualities. Like him, she's had songs that have become staples of popular consciousness. "Independence Day" was a 1994 hit for Martina McBride, and "You Don't Even Know Who I Am" was a Grammy-nominated single from Patty Loveless, for starters. Meanwhile, he released challenging, artistic statements that resonated more deeply with listeners outside the singles market, such as 2018's breathtaking Dancing With the Beast, 2009's One to the Heart, One to the Head with Tom Russell.

On The Night You Wrote That Song, Peters reveals her deep knowledge of Newbury's songbook, presenting the tunes with affection, whether stately versions of "She Even Woke Up Me Up to Say Goodbye", "San Francisco Mabel Joy", and "Heaven Help The Child", or a stripped-down rendering of "Just Dropped In" that breathes fresh life into a time-worn classic.

What we learn here is not only the depth of Newbury's songwriting but Peters' talents as a performer. Like the actor who makes Hamlet feel like a living, breathing human being, she convinces us that this material has a life beyond their creator.

Arguably the most devasting of these interpretations is the opening "The Sailor", for which she has just released a video. A brooding generational ballad that speaks to the writer's appreciation for classical poetry and song and the performer's inimitable understanding of the material, it is a fitting introduction to the album, and it stands as one of Peters' personal favorites on the album. "There's so much of his psyche in that song," she says. "Maybe that's why that's the one that resonates with me the most. There's self-doubt in it. There's questioning. There's restlessness."

Joining Peters on the album are luminaries such as Buddy Miller, Will Kimbrough, Barry Walsh, and Kim Richey. Tracking the material at Cinderella Sound, where Newbury recorded some of his most iconic material, offered an extra dimension to the songs, Peters notes.

Discovering that the studio was still operational, she decamped there, wondering what it would be like to cut a few tracks. "The worst thing that could happen is that it wouldn't work," she recalls. "We have our group of people we like to work with and studios we're familiar with, so it was like jumping into a whole new universe. But we thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if it did work? If some of that magic was still in the walls?'"

In the end, it proved to be "a great decision," she adds, "not only because we were there where Mickey recorded but also because it was this little cocoon for us. It's not on Music Row; it's not even in Nashville. It's in Madison, which is north of town. It was like this hideaway. The studio hasn't changed much since the 1960s. There's a lot of the same gear. It was fun to be around. It's got a warm sound like those records of Mickey's do. That's an intangible, but it was the sound we hoped we would get."

Peters spoke with PopMatters about her love of Mickey Newbury and the origins and evolution of The Night You Wrote That Song from Florida, where she and her husband temporarily relocated after the Nashville tornado of March 2020.

***

Mickey Newbury was an incredibly eclectic writer and musician.

That's exactly the word. There are a lot of people who came to country music at some point in their development but didn't grow up with it. Much like Emmylou Harris was accessible to people like me, he was too. Because of that eclecticism. He would incorporate all these elements into his records and, to me, that felt familiar and interesting. I don't think at the time I could have completely wrapped my head around the genius of a George Jones record, for instance, without having a way in.

There have been periods of renewed interest in Newbury's work over the last few decades, but he remains someone who isn't on everyone's radar. I would imagine it was that way when you were initially listening to him.

It wasn't so much that I couldn't understand why he wasn't as famous as Glen Campbell; it was more why people who knew about Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson didn't have his name on their lips. There are a lot of reasons for that. One of the main reasons is likely because he left Nashville when he still had a lot of career left. I think if you do that, you really do disappear from certain people's frame of reference.

Photo: Gina Binkley / Courtesy of the Missing Piece Group

When you encountered people who did know his work did you feel like you were part of a special club?

The reason that Buddy Miller sings harmony on "Frisco Depot" on my record is because we were sitting backstage at a show in Nashville, and I guess I had just been in the studio recording something for the record. I said to Buddy, "Are you a Mickey Newbury fan by any chance?" His whole face lit up. There aren't that many of us. We started talking about Mickey and started talking about records and songs, and I said, "If you're up for it, I'd like you to sing on this record."

When did you know you wanted to record an album of Newbury tunes?

It was in the back of my mind for a really long time. Over ten years. When I found him, I was still living at home with my mom. She was a great enabler of my musical aspirations and desires. If there was a band playing locally and I wasn't old enough to get into the bar where they were playing, she'd take me to the bar. She was amazing. When I brought his records home, she fell in love with him like I did. I think, at some point, after I'd moved to Nashville, she said, "I want you to do a record of Mickey Newbury songs. I want to hear you sing those songs."

But at that point, my career was pretty young. I think I filed that away in my brain, but I certainly didn't feel like I'd earned the right to do that. I was in the middle of my own career. I had records I wanted to make, songs I wanted to write. It took me years to get to the point where I thought, 'Yeah, I could do that.' I had to get to a point in my own career where I thought that I could pause and where I felt like I'd earned it.

"San Francisco Mabel Joy" is a great example of Mickey's songwriting. There's a strong narrative; it's literary and poetic. And I have to say that until I heard it, I thought "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was the saddest love song of all time.

[Laughs.] Right? It's like an O. Henry story in the most tragic way. That's something that moved me about Newbury really early on, which is that he never loses empathy for his characters. There's this intense empathy. 'She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye' is the great example: He empathizes with the woman who's leaving him.

I loved the literateness of them because I loved Leonard Cohen, and, to me, they're on the same continuum, lyrically speaking.

You did do "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)", which is probably his best-known song but I love that you didn't go anywhere obvious with it.

You can't because everybody already has, right? [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Absolutely.

On the surface, it might seem like the most obvious choice. "She did that?" That was one of the first songs I started messing around with. I thought, "Wouldn't it be fun to strip it back?" My intent with the whole record was to put the lyrics front-and-center. In every song. I also wanted to do as little as possible production-wise around that. It's got a serious darkness to it that everyone forgets when they listen to the First Edition version. I think it's a great lyric.

Photo: Gina Binkley / Courtesy of the Missing Piece Group

Did you ever get to see Mickey live?

I didn't. I had the chance to meet him when I first came to Nashville. I had a publishing deal but hadn't had a song recorded, nothing. My publisher invited me to a party up at Old Hickory Lake, where he had his houseboat. I couldn't make myself go.

I think that I didn't want to meet him without him having any reason to want to meet me. And now I think, "What an idiot! You should have gone." Meeting your heroes can be dicey. I think that's why having the support and approval of his family, his wife Susie especially, really meant so much to me. That was as close as I was going to get to having his approval.

So you got in touch with the family?

I wanted to let them know that I was doing it. I felt like that was the right thing to do. At some point, we had a gig in Portland. Susie lives not too far from there. We had most of the album mixed. She came out to hear us, and I played "Frisco Depot", I think for the first time standing there in front of her. Just terrified. She was lovely. We went out to her car after the show and listened to most of the album. She's been nothing but supportive, saying great things about it.

You didn't know him personally but did you get a better sense of him through spending all this time with the songs?

Definitely. There's nothing like singing a song to get you 100 layers deeper into it. When you do that, you really get a sense of who the writer is. There's a lot of subtlety in his lyrics. There's a restlessness in a lot of his songs, and I think I picked up on that before, but before I got in and started singing them, there was a restlessness, an itch that needed scratching, and a little bit of anger. I really related to that. I had felt all of those things and do feel all those things, especially my relationship to the business part of music.

I think his anger was directed toward Nashville. Not that he was an angry person, but he had a problematic relationship with the city, for obvious reasons. He did some things that they didn't like.

I feel like we've had parallel careers in some ways: He was this really successful songwriter, then he made these records, and they didn't sell to millions of people. But he made them the way he wanted to make them. I think that he must have heard the thing I heard a million times, "Why not sit at home and write more hits? Why not write 'She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye' again? You can't tell an artist that. You can't tell someone like him to reproduce something that he did because he's miles ahead of that.

The other insight I had was that he was not afraid to throw the rules out. There's some structural things that you don't really notice because he disguised them so brilliantly. But if you really take the song structure apart on some of these songs, it's decidedly different and strange. And it works. That's the sign of a great writer.

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