On his latest album, Apocalypse, released in March, Bill Callahan halts midway through the marching track "America!" to list some of the country music greats that enlisted in the armed forces: "Captain Kristofferson, Buck Sergeant Newbury, Leatherneck Jones, Sergeant Cash…What an army!" Three of those names will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in postwar Americana, but "Buck Sergeant Newbury" might raise a few eyebrows in 2011.
Callahan's label, Drag City, has apparently decided to rectify that situation, releasing a four-disc set of Mickey Newbury's very odd, very beautiful solo LPs from the late '60s and early '70s. Titled An American Trilogy, after the Newbury song made famous by Elvis Presley, the box collects 1969's Looks Like Rain, 1971's 'Frisco Mabel Joy, and 1973's Heaven Help the Child, as well as a new compilation of demo and radio recordings, Better Days. Together, they make a powerful case for Newbury as an underappreciated performer and a genuine iconoclast; 40 years on, these records seem more closely aligned with Scott Walker's early solo albums than any contemporary Nashville artist. (Walker, in fact, would cover Newbury's "Frisco Junction" and "Sunshine" on his vaguely country-concept record Stretch in 1973.)
Newbury rarely sings about anything other than heartbreak, but these records contain some of the most cinematic tear-in-your-beer songs you've ever heard—an accomplishment made even more impressive by the fact that he recorded all of them in his garage, employing oceanic reverb and a synthetic "orchestra" called the Nashphilharmonic, made from dozens of guitar overdubs. So while each album is built on a foundation of fingerpicked nylon-string guitar and Newbury's powerful, quivering tenor, they all sound absolutely massive. This is quiet music that begs to be played at huge volumes, just to let each instrument hang in the air.
A sympathetic band of Nashville pros back every track here, most of whom had previously played on Blonde on Blonde, but there's nothing rootsy about Newbury's work. He pushed against the constraints of traditional Nashville song structures as forcefully as any of the outlaw-country figures who emerged in the mid '70s, but he did so by drawing out his stories and bumpering them with sound effects (usually gentle rain), interludes, and subtle transitions. And while the brokenhearted lyrics might invite listeners to hear this trilogy as autobiographical, Newbury displays an astounding breadth of voices over the course of 26 songs: cracked and yearning in "How Many Times (Must the Piper Be Paid for His Song?)," omniscient and forceful in "San Francisco Mabel Joy," and shitkickin' and celebratory in "How I Love Them Old Songs."
The demos on Better Days are almost relieving to hear; the final products of his proper albums can be so overwhelmingly tasteful and reserved that it's refreshing to hear the songs in plainer form. The compilation also contains a few tracks that went unreleased during the period. But Looks Like Rain, 'Frisco Mabel Joy, and Heaven Help the Child are still fascinating documents—not quite Nashville, not quite pop, not exactly experimental. Newbury literally created his own artistic place that's simultaneously familiar and unclassifiable.