A Muse's Muse Interview with Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame Inductee, Mickey Newbury
conducted by: Jodi Krangle
Mickey Newbury was inducted into the the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1980 - and for good reason.
From his web site:
Newbury's songs have been recorded by Ray Charles, B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson and Joan Baez, among others. He once had four songs simultaneously in the R&B, Country, Easy Listening and Pop Charts. He is perhaps best known for his composition "American Trilogy", a pastiche of Civil War-era songs also recorded by Elvis Presley.
He gave a wonderful interview. It's quite clear that, thrumming through his words like a heartbeat, is a continuing love for the process of writing songs - no matter where that takes him.
Question: When did you first start writing songs and what prompted you to do so? Do you have a musical background?
The first song I wrote and had published was titled "Just As Long As That Someone Is You". It was written in 1959, and recorded in 1965 by Jimmy Ellege. I started writing songs because I wanted something of my own to sing. I, at that time, was not aware that the songs I heard on the radio were not written by the folks singing them. I had always loved poetry, and found it easy to integrate a melody with poetry.
I have had no formal musical training. I took violin lessons as a child. I played so badly I was asked to sing instead at a Christmas show. That was my first performance. I have not stopped singing, since. In 1954, I started singing with a group named the Embers. We had our first record contract with Mercury Records in 1956. I sang with that group until 1958. I dropped out, and went into the military in 1959. After being discharged in 1963, I started writing again. In 1964, I signed a publishing agreement with Acuff-Rose Publishing, in Nashville, and I have continued to write. I have recorded for several labels, producing 18 albums over the past 35 years.
I was not a touring artist, preferring to write and record as much as possible. I have had two releases a month, by other artists, for the last 35 years.
Question: That's quite a record, Mickey! Can you tell us something about the business behind that? By that, I mean: how do the publishers and/or recording artists go about getting the right to record your work? How did you get your work to them in the first place? Have those methods and those agreements changed over the years? And if so, how have they changed?
It is a publisher's responsibility to copyright, protect, exploit, and collect: although in many instances they fall soundly short. In my case I was affiliated with the largest publishing company in Nashville, when I, in 1964, arrived. It was a very satisfactory arrangement for the first few years, until the record industry started their own publishing companies. The incestuous nature brought on by that union, made it very difficult, if not impossible to have a song reviewed by a producer. I, personally, had the majority of my "covers" from artists listening to my albums, when I was actively recording. Acuff-Rose had less than 50% to do with getting anything cut for me.
A publisher has what is known as the "first right of refusal" which means I can choose the first artist who gets to cut it. After that onetime exclusion, it becomes public domain, and can be cut by anyone, with nothing more than a licensing agreement with the publisher. The rate is a statutory rate, set by the Patent and Copyright Office of the US, which leaves me no control over who cuts the record or the payment for that right.
Question: What song of yours do you consider to be the most successful and why? (This doesn't have to mean financially... However you've come to judge these things over the years.)
I consider "San Francisco Mabel Joy" to be the most successful song I have written, for several reasons. First, it was a five minute song written in a two minute world. I was told it would never be cut by any artist. Second, I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded. It has sold in excess of 55 million records. It broke the rules and it broke the walls down. It became the foundation for a new form of expression in country music. It was chosen in the millennial year as one of the top 100 folk songs of the past century.
Personally, I like "Doggone My Soul, How I Love Them Ol' Songs" 'Tis a fine line I walk.
Question: So what are your thoughts on "going against the grain", so to speak? When do you think it's a good idea to take the chance and when do you think it's better to "fit the mold"? Have there been particular times in your life when you did something to "fit the mold" and then were disappointed that you did?
It depends on whether you are a singer/songwriter or a songwriter/singer. In my case I chose to focus on writing. I would perform just enough to get feedback from the audience to insure a fragile thread was left unbroken. My captive audience, unlike the radio or dance audience, was the only audience I made any attempt to reach. In other words, Jodi, I tell my audience stories, and have no desire to be background music for conversation, dance music in a lounge, or the latest fad.
Question: That's an extremely valid (and honest) answer, Mickey. Thank you. On a different note (pun intended), How do you deal with writer's block? Do you experience it? Do you believe it exists?
I never have "writers block". I consider that a "time of gathering". Now, I will admit there have been times when sleep depravation released a torrent of writing, but unfortunately not the best.
Question: (This is actually the current songwriting survey question and I thought I'd get your perspective on things too...) Have you been following the RIAA/Napster/Scour debates at all? How do you think songwriters will be affected by it? And do you think copyright law as we know it, will survive the evolution of the net?
I would sooner be robbed by a fan than a company. The fan may be broke and have but one choice. There is no excuse for the way the "songwriter" is robbed by everyone from the record company to the broadcaster, by the pure bottom line... Greed. If it continues, sadly, in time, the music will suffer. It takes many many years to learn how to write a song properly. Songwriters will be forced to hit the road in order to make a decent living and in my opinion these two careers are related but not compatible.
Question: In your opinion, how is it that the songwriters are being robbed these days? Who are the worst offenders (I mean, in general - not particular companies) and is there any way, do you think, to prevent it?
I have no control over my music. The Government tells me what I am to be paid for my work and for how long. If a songwriter had the same cost of living increase from the 1930's that the legislature seems to always find for its members, I could afford to hire someone to sit here and type these answers. I find it very strange, how long the performance societies have escaped the same charges Bill Gates is facing now, and AT&T faced some years back. With the world now connected via the internet, there can be no doubt what song and at what time any song is played at any time and place in the world. SO! I now step down from my apple box.
Question: What are you doing these days, Mickey? What's in store for you in the future? What projects are you excited about that you're working on now?
I have always chosen short, attainable goals. There may be no future. I once thought 30 was old... Well, I'm afraid I've seen many decades go by since then. Remember "Never Trust anyone over Thirty". So long ago...and yet ..only yesterday. Here I am at sixty; I still love to write. I love words... wrapped in music. It's funny; I detest letter writing and yet, I so dearly love song writing. So, I will continue to write songs, I suppose until my last breath. I will record until I cannot hear...phrase a line...or...no longer love this most selfish mistress.
More information on Mickey Newbury can be found on his web page.