I often make mental, and sometimes hard copy, lists of my favorite music; favorite songs, favorite albums, favorite concerts, favorite Soul artist, favorite Country artist, favorite Blues artist, favorite singer (female), favorite singer (male), and so on.
With that last one there are several always at the top - Silvio Rodriguez, Bruce Springsteen, Al Green, Tom Waits, Issac Hayes - and while it is a bit ridiculous to have one favorite, if push comes to shove this guy would be it. Mickey Newbury's voice and his music give me chills every time I hear it, and I've been hearing it since I was very young. I must have been 12 or 13 the first time, and I then I heard it when this became a song that was played on the radio. Hard to imagine that this was played on the radio because now you have to search high and low to find someone who recognizes his name. Once Elvis took this piece over, it wiped out the last memory anyone seemed to have of this guy.
But not for me. I got the 'Frisco Mabel Joy album for Christmas the year it came out and I lived inside the cover photo surrounded by the music coming from my record player for years after that.
Skip ahead a decade and change when I was in Seattle and alone for the first time in my life - truly alone. I picked up a cassette of Newbury's - "In A New Age" a saw in a record store during a time when I had very little money, but after seeing it there for a few months I gathered together the dollars to buy it. It was a very rough period in my life. Depressed, I spent a long weekend sleeping, waking up to play the tape over and over as it healed me back into life.
Newbury didn't just create songs, he recreated them throughout his career - changing lyrics and parts of melodies and titles and moods. His sorrow is deeper than any recorded, and his soaring vocals are transcendent, ethereal and beautiful. His music is made up of birdsongs, clouds shifting, haunting strings, good-time porch music, rain and thunder, high lonesome and down and out. I hear parts of Newbury in other artists I love - certainly Springsteen, also Tom Waits (the poignant melodies, the drifting voice), Fred Eaglesmith, Steve Earle, and many more - but no one does it better.
I never got to see him perform live, one of the true regrets I have in my life. I remember finding out about his death and falling into another dark depression. I took to the bathtub instead of the bottle (although I'm sure I took a beer with me) because that is often where I go when I need to be alone with my thoughts and my tears. Since then I have found that there are others out there that were also touched by this man and his art, passionate folks from all over. They are keeping a part of him alive. I'm grateful.
July 4th seems a good time to post this - perhaps the greatest American singer of my time - I guess that could be argued, even by me depending on my mood. But there will never be another quite like him.