He Writes, Sings Songs of America

One by one, Mickey Newbury's friends and contemporaries--songwriters who also got started in the '60s--have become stars in their own right: Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings.

Despite having written hits ranging from his own "An American Trilogy" (also recorded by Elvis Presley) to Kenny Rogers & the First Edition's "Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In)," Newbury has failed to follow their lead.

The 48-year-old songwriter, who makes a rare local appearance tonight at the Roxy, doesn't seem to mind. Speaking by phone from a weekend tour stop in San Francisco, Newbury said that his refusal to be pigeonholed has probably hurt his career. Instead of honing in on one idiom--folk, country or blues--he has blended all three for a distinctive but hard-to-categorize sound.

"I don't like categories," he said. "They lock you into a certain kind of music. Often a writer starts imitating himself or starts trying to recapture an old success."

Though the Houston native may not be well-known to the public, he is highly respected within the industry and among critics.

Newbury noted that one influential critic rated his albums among the year's best three times. "I may have been the only act he ever gave that kind of support to that never did make it," he said, both with pride and a sense of irony.

"I've done some things wrong, but I did them by design," he said. "There were so many times I could have jumped on the bandwagon. At the time that (Waylon Jennings') 'Luckenbach, Texas' came out (in 1977), I could have fallen right into that 'outlaw' thing."

In fact, Newbury recalled that he was pressured by his record company to release an album called "Newbury's Train Songs," after a key line in the refrain of Jennings' smash: "Between Hank Williams pain songs / And Newbury train songs / And 'Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.' "

"They couldn't understand why I refused to do it," he said. "But I figured what little audience I did have would have immediately seen it for what it was: Jumping on the bandwagon when I didn't fit the mold."

Newbury, who has lived near Eugene, Ore., for 15 years, observed that he was lucky because he could always make a living writing songs. "I couldn't have been so damned high-minded if I'd had to get out there and make a living as an artist," he said.

Newbury added that he has never had the burning desire to be a successful artist.

"I don't crave stardom," he said. "I'm not concerned with what the public thinks about my music. It's what artists think that counts with me."

Newbury has just released his 14th album, "Mickey Newbury in a New Age," on Airborne Records, a small, Nashville-based label. The album, which features new versions of his songs "An American Trilogy" and "Frisco Mabel Joy," was recorded live in the studio on a bargain-basement budget of $3,500.

"I walked into the studio, sat down and cut one entire side, had a cup of coffee, and cut the other side without stopping," he said.

Newbury's songs have been recorded by a wide range of artists--"from Carol Channing to B. B. King and everyone in between," as he put it. Also on the list: Ray Charles, Joan Baez, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Jones and Tammy Wynette.

Newbury, whose current 10-city tour with classical violinist Marie Rhines is his most extensive in more than a decade, said that his appeal to a wide spectrum of artists is the result of his refusal to remain in sone tidy niche.

"I'm an American singer/songwriter, whatever that encompasses--folk, country, blues," he said. "They're all very close anyway. There's really not very much difference between (country star) Jimmie Rodgers and (folk legend) Woody Guthrie. Their approach to a problem may be different, but the music sounds the same to my ears."

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