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The Sad Poetry of Don Gibson & Mickey Newbury
Highlighting the contributions of two of country-music's finest singer-songwriters
Welcome to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’ Since my last piece, I have had the pleasure to welcome a flood of new subscribers to this space (having the great Ted Gioia reference Substack’s recent music-writers shoutout thread helped me reach the milestone of 100 subscribers and then some!). If you’re new here, a warm hello! It’s great to have you along and I hope you will enjoy my writings on music. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to check out my archive of over 30 pieces I have written since I started this publication last May.
Today’s essay deals with two figures in country music that have been overlooked: Don Gibson and Mickey Newbury, both songwriters who specialized in chronicling the sad side of life. Their music is ripe for wider recognition, and I hope if what I’ve written piques your interest, you’ll check out more of their work.
Coming later this month will be a look at one of the defining albums of sixties California in Laurel Canyon: the Mamas and the Papas’ magnificent eponymous second album. It’s a record I’ve long loved and I look forward to delving into it in detail.
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In a trailer park near Knoxville, Tennessee in 1957, a country songwriter who also sang had what might be called a really good day. Inspiration had struck for him before. Two years earlier, he had written what has become a country standard, ‘Sweet Dreams.’ It got him a contract with Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., a music publishing company distinguished by an ethos of being an honest dealer as well as a chance to record with MGM Records. But, this day in 1957 was something else entirely.
With guitar and pen in hand, two of country’s enduring masterworks appeared on the page in one afternoon: ‘Oh, Lonesome Me,’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You.’ If a single day can dictate the future of one’s life, this day set the course for Don Gibson. On the strength of those two songs, he got his foot in the door at RCA and caught the ear of producer Chet Atkins, relationships that helped refine the concept of the Nashville Sound and establish Gibson as one of its most ideal popularizers.
And yet, today, if Gibson is mentioned, it’s usually only in passing. In Ken Burns’ omnibus country-music documentary, he is only referred to as the songwriter of ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ during a segment on Ray Charles, who recorded arguably the song’s definitive version. In Tyler Mahon Coe’s excellent series of episodes on the Nashville Sound as part of the second season of Cocaine & Rhinestones, Gibson is similarly mentioned parenthetically. Maybe it’s because Gibson’s music has been a large part of the sounds I have listened to since I was very young, but this consignment of Gibson to the background of country music’s narrative strikes me as unjust, perhaps even sad.
“I believe that you can go look and find a country song that will help you feel better. Sometimes it might make you cry but you’ll feel better.”
‘Oh, Lonesome Me’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ set the mold for Gibson’s main preoccupation: love; more specifically, the loss of it. It led to him being branded “The Sad Poet.”
“My songs are simple, and just about all of them are about love. I write about people, not things. I never had a lot of education and I don’t feel easy with words. Most of the words to my songs are real simple. I just make them up to put to some tune on the guitar I’ve come up with. It’s the sound of the guitar that I’ve always been interested in.”
Gibson’s self-professed simplicity—like so many who grew up in the American South during the Depression, he had to drop out of school (the second grade in Gibson’s case) to help support his sharecropper family—found its voice in the sophistication of sixties Nashville.
Rather than diluting Gibson’s sound or compromising his artistic ambitions, as what arguably happened with contemporaries like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings (though, it must be said, to these ears, there is much recommend in their work in the Nashville Sound mold), the trappings of Nashville at the time: electric bass, tic-tac guitar, a de-emphasis on the steel guitar and fiddle, vocal choruses like the Anita Kerr Singers and especially the Jordanaires, dovetailed with Gibson’s gifts to create country music that was thoroughly cosmopolitan. Gibson cast as an unapologetic urban cowboy, equally at home on the Opry stage as one of the masses pounding the pavement in New York. His voice a rich tenor, polished like Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves or Ray Price, and leavened with occasional sighs and moans as he stretches out the syllables in his lyrics.
The songs he wrote, comprising a canon of sad songs, exhibit this same sense of push-and-pull as well as a playful sense of irony. ‘(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time’ is a prime example as is the fantasy of ‘Give Myself a Party,’ an imagined soiree with only two guests: Gibson, brokenhearted yet unbowed, and the blues. Make no mistake, the gloom is real and even when Gibson changes course to write a happier song—‘Anything New Gets Old (Except My Love for You)’ from 1963’s I Wrote a Song… is one—it’s delivered in such a way as if he is acknowledging, especially in the tone of almost disbelief when singing, that it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be throwing another party with himself and the blues the sole guests. Indeed, as he wrote in ‘Lonesome Number One,’ “heartaches hang around, they always come.” It’s neither a defeatist nor a nihilistic statement by Gibson; it’s simply part of everyday life. To quote another Gibson song, ‘Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles,’ “it happens to the best of us, that’s what they always say. So take it boy, like a man, don’t stand in my way.”
Gibson’s guitar playing also carries this spirit of determination. It’s a deeply rhythmic sound, cutting through the Nashville productions. His recording of Thomas A. Dorsey’s ‘Old Ship of Zion,’ from 1964’s God Walks These Hills is a clear example. Opening with an almost-flamenco flourish, Gibson’s rhythm anchors the ingenious fusion of a country sound with a walking, gospel pulse. His vocal is full of the stylistic devices that define a Don Gibson vocal: his stretching of words, the moan he often employs when singing the song’s title, multiple-note vocal runs and subtle reharmonizations of Dorsey’s melody. There’s more than just an inkling of a soul singer lying within Gibson as well as that of a pop singer. Gibson considers the song’s lyrics, tailoring his approach to the words.
As with many country singers in the late fifties and early sixties, Gibson’s recordings occasionally crossed over onto the pop charts, including ‘Oh, Lonesome Me,’ as well as ‘Blue, Blue Day,’ ‘Just One Time’ and ‘Sea of Heartbreak’ (the latter written by Paul Hampton and Hal David).
In the first decade of his recording career (from 1956 to 1965), Gibson placed 13 songs in the Billboard country top ten. His next top-ten country hit was in the following year, ‘(Yes) I’m Hurting,’ a textbook example of all the elements that argue for his place in the country-music pantheon. Over a driving, almost Johnny Cash-like beat pushed by Gibson’s insistent guitar, his robust vocal propels the song forward, the stop-and-start rhythm, especially as he stretches out the song title with only his guitar marking the beat, and the call-and-response between him and the Jordanaires on the bridge create a recording that is country for sure, but also crosses over into rock and soul. It’s an infectious, eminently listenable stew where artist, group and material are all in glorious accord.
His follow-up single, ‘Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings,’ was just as successful, a classic ballad performance, especially how Gibson shades the word “sleep” in the opening verse with a characteristic sigh signifying an unspoken context of exhaustion. The sadness here is more interior, when Gibson asks these feelings to “stop walking all over my mind,” he says, rather than sings, the first two words. The song is unmistakenly darker than those usually written by Gibson and for good reason, it was written by another sad poet: Mickey Newbury.
“Mickey Newbury is probably the best songwriter ever. I’m sure that I never would have written ‘Bobby McGee’ or ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ if I had never known Mickey. He was my hero and still is.”
Newbury, born in Texas, moved to Nashville in the mid sixties to pursue a career as a songwriter after a stint in the service. He landed at Gibson’s publisher, Acuff-Rose. Gibson’s cover of ‘Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings,’ was the first of a flood of noted interpretations of Newbury’s songs to appear in the late sixties. Before long, he was one of the hottest and most forward thinking tunesmiths in Music City and also one with wide appeal, including a top five pop hit in early 1968 with the First Edition’s recording of his ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),’ featuring Kenny Rogers singing lead. Mirroring Gibson’s path to success, Newbury’s songs got him a record deal with RCA. Unlike Gibson, it proved to be an instant mismatch. His debut album, Harlequin Melodies, is an awkward melange of layered, lightly psychedelic production and a program of songs of melancholia. The experience proved to be such a disappointment that Newbury managed to extricate himself from his RCA contract and to essentially deny the very existence of the album.
Moving over to Mercury, Newbury teamed up with Jerry Kennedy and Wayne Moss to record what he regarded as his true debut album, Looks Like Rain. It’s here where Newbury’s approach to the sad song is starkly presented. Whereas Gibson’s songs often approach heartache as an unavoidable fact of life, Newbury’s are tales of existential desolation, painting portraits of the gulf between partners which will never be bridged and moments that are best left alone. The mood of the album is underlined by the sounds of rainfall, train whistles, wind and thunder of which the songs segue in and out. There is a stillness that pervades, a moody, atmospheric cauldron in which the touches that Kennedy and Moss add arrest the ear and heighten Newbury’s tales: the distorted sitar shadowing his vocal during sections of the opening ‘Write a Song a Song’ (virtually a thesis statement of the music to come), a lone female soprano voice accentuating ‘I Don’t Think About Her No More,’ the layering of Newbury's vocal chanting at the start of ‘The Thirty-Third of August,’ and the angelic choir leading the Weycross country boy to the Great Beyond at the heartbreaking conclusion of ‘San Francisco Mable Joy.’
This is music that gets under the skin. Newbury’s lines haunt (“Yesterday’s gone and it’s better forgotten. It’s like a poison red berry that clings to the mind” from ‘I Don’t Think About Her No More’ for just one example) and individual moments stand out (like his wonder as his lady leaves him that “she even woke me up to say goodbye,” an uncommon gesture of grace).
Newbury’s delivery is simple and unadorned with the slightest of a Texan drawl, never drawing attention away from the song, furthering the hush surrounding the album, drawing the listener in. There are few artists that I have heard that have a similar effect; let Mickey Newbury into your life and wherever you are listening to him becomes a cathedral.
It’s a feeling that becomes even more literal when considering the opening song to his follow-up album in 1971, ‘Frisco Mable Joy, on the Elektra label and produced by Dennis Linde (best known as the songwriter of ‘Burning Love’): ‘An American Trilogy.’ A creation by Newbury out of fragments of ‘Dixie,’ ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ and ‘All My Trials,’ it starts with a reverent guitar line before Newbury begins to sing—slowly, methodically and reverently—building in emotion as he launches into the famous refrain of the ‘Battle Hymn’ (“glory, glory, hallelujah…”), his voice cushioned by the sweeping and oddly futuristic sound of an orchestra of steel guitars, christened by Newbury the Nashphilharmonic leading into the deep sorrow of ‘All My Trials.’
If ‘An American Trilogy’ is known today, it’s primarily through Elvis’ version, a concert showstopper from 1972 to 1974, a loud, brash, unapologetic paean to America in all caps. Newbury’s rendering, which hit #26 on the Billboard singles chart, is far more introspective and ambiguous, cognizant of the varying perspectives that come when thinking about the United States of America.
Newbury’s rise was a key turning point in country music, paving the way forward for others like Kris Kristofferson who led the music away from the sound and approach of standard bearers like Don Gibson. Yet, similarly to Gibson, Newbury is another footnote in the history of the music, if mentioned at all. So many, though, have found both of their songs worth covering and interpreting, a sign that both Gibson and Newbury’s insights into the human condition have some element of universality. A feeling that when one goes through trails, there’s a song that can help, a reassurance that we are not alone.
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