An American TrilogyAlbum | Mickey Newbury By Stewart Mason
Essential reappraisal of an underrated Nashville singer-songwriter.
Mickey Newbury doesn't have the outlaw street cred of contemporaries like Willie Nelson, even though history notes him as an early supporter of country iconoclasts like Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson. In part that's because Elvis Presley made Newbury's best-known song "An American Trilogy" (a medley of "Dixie," the gospel standard "All My Trials," and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") the centerpiece of his Vegas act in the early '70s, forever associating it with sweaty satin jumpsuits and karate kicks. But the real reason is that Newbury's three most important albums, 1969's Looks Like Rain, 1971's Frisco Mabel Joy, and 1973's Heaven Help the Child, have long been available only in substandard reissues. With the rediscovery of the long-lost original master tapes, this superlative four-disc box set allows listeners to discover the quirky magic of this long-underrated singer-songwriter. The original LPs (also available as high-quality vinyl reissues) are basically country concept albums, each one exploring a particular mood or theme. A sense of melancholic intimacy suffuses them, especially the downcast Looks Like Rain; Newbury's close-miked, conversational vocals and character-sketch lyrics feel artless even when their careful craft is evident. Modern listeners scared of the overblown "countrypolitan" sound of the era's Nashville hits shouldn't fret: the pared-down, subtle arrangements will feel familiar to anyone who owns a Nick Drake or Bonnie "Prince" Billy album. The fourth disc, Better Days, gathers even more stripped-down demos, radio sessions and alternate takes.
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