Omaha Rainbow : Issue 13

The Mickey Newbury Interview - by Peter O'Brien

(London, England : April 10 1977)

Heaven Help the Child

Mickey NewburyAre you happy that we skip the first 18 years and go straight to Shreveport?

Yeah, just as well.  I can't think of anything of interest that hasn't already been printed.

When you went to Shreveport, was it just a question of being the right time to leave home?

Actually, I left earlier than 18.  I did go to Shreveport when I Was 18 and stayed for about 6 months but the first time I left was when I was about 16.  I dropped out of school and, let's see, first I went to East Texas with a friend of mine, and then to Shreveport.  I couldn't get a job because I hadn't graduated from high school, so I came back to Houston and finished school in the summer.  Had a summer school session.  I don't know whether they have that over here or not?  Then, I went back to Shreveport later when I was about 18.  Wound up joining the air force when I was about, I guess, 19.

You joined the air force because of a lack of job opportunity?

Yeah, lack of any kind of opportunity to do anything.  I didn't want to go to college.  Didn't have the money even if I wanted to.  We talked about that.  A friend and I went down to Nachadotes, Texas.  The opportunity to travel and see the world probably had a lot to do with it, because I had never been anywhere except down around Texas, Louisiana, once to Oklahoma and once to Arkansas.

What about music?  Had you done anything at all . musically prior to joining the air force?

Oh, yeah, I had been on two major labels.  I was in a vocal group in the early 50's called The Embers.  Pretty big group. Kenny Rogers was on another vocal group called The Scholars.  We were all good friends.  We all used to play in different places.  Some of the black clubs we played as opening acts to some of the big black acts like The Coasters, Bobby Blue Bland.  Kenny kind of branched off into jazz music, went with a group called The Kirby Stone Four.  We stayed with the blues music.  We had one record out on the Herald label in New York, and then we had one record out on Mercury.....or two.  Two on Mercury.  Singles.  Our vocal sound was like The Penguins, The Drifters, those things.  Blues music and country music are very closely aligned in my ears.  They're really the same music.  Both kinds of music from underprivileged people.

These early vocal groups, did they come out of people you were at school with?

That's right.  Played school dances, parties.....just.a guitar and four guys singing.

How much forrnal musical education did you have?

None, apart from the violin lessons when I was a kid.  I got as far as 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' which I haven't played since age seven!  I don't read music, can't read a lick.  I don't even know the names of the guitar strings.

When you joined the air force, for how long did you sign up?

Four years.  I was in England about seven months after I signed up.  RAF Croughton, near Banbury, for three years.  Went to Oxford lots of times.  Kristofferson was right there at the University at the same time, not that I knew him or met him then. I was a Buck Sergeant Air Traffic Controller, did my job, partied, learned to play a little bit of piano while I was there, but not much else musically.  I listened to a lot of music.  That was when I first listened to Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary and Peggy Lee.  I was working shifts, three days on and three days off, and on my three days off I'd come to London.  I rented a place in Swiss Cottage where there used to be a constant party.  I'd leave, and it would still be going when I came back.  It was a party that lasted.for three years.  The doors were always open, always plenty to drink and eat.

Eventually you were shipped back to The States.  Did you consider signing on for another tour of duty?

I thought about signing on for another term for about six months.  I never could decide what I wanted to do.  I was not used to not having things again, being broke and having to scratch around for cigarette money.  But I did get demobbed and I made my way down to South East Texas to work on the shrimp boats.  I liked the Ocean and I liked the free style of living the shrimpers and fishermen had.  They were doing what they enjoyed, which I liked.  Good people to be around.  A lot of fun.  It gave me time to write.  That was a real good time for me.

When you say, ''time to write," were these the first songs you'd ever written?  When did it come into your head that you wanted to write songs?

I started writing poetry and stuff, some songs, back in the 50's.  I guess when I went down in the Gulf was when I really started writing.  When I was working on the boats.  I'd write songs about the shrimpers.  They got a kick out of that.  About tearing their nets up, the sort of problems they had.

For some reason you must have decided, idyllic though this life was, the songs you were writing. made it worthwhile heading for Nashville?

I had written about forty songs, and a guy in Houston named Ray Bush took about fifteen of them to Wesley Rose.  Wesley cut one of the Songs, called me and asked if I'd come sign as a staff writer.  At that time I didn't know there were such things as songwriters who made money writing songs.  I just didn't understand anything about that area of the business.  To me there was just performing.  Then they started to explain to me there were songwriters who wrote songs all the time.  So about six months later I went to Nashville and signed with Wesley in 1964.  I would write whatever I felt and mail it to Acuff-Rose.  I never took on a retainer because I didn't want to be obligated.  I never took an advance or a retainer at all the whole time I was there.

Again, going back to the famous biography, there is the thing which sounds almost too good to be true which says you lived out of the back of a 1949 Pontiac.  But is it really true?

Absolutely.  I travelled, and I didn't stay in one place more than six weeks for years.  Slept in the back of the car with my clothes piled all on top of me.  Or in laundromats, or wherever else I could find to sleep!  I must tell you, I was down in Dallas right after I came out of the air force, and all my stuff was in the back of the car, 15 made to measure English suits, and they were ripped off.  Broke in and stole all my clothes.  Left me one pair of blue jeans and a sweater a girl in England had knitted me.  I proceeded to tear it up jumping off a freight train on my way to Beaumont one time.  Tore the sweater and pants, ended up with nothing.  The car had broken down, and I was playing the basement of the King Edward Hotel in Beaumont.  Went on the train because it was about the safest and the quickest way to go.

Shades of' Kerouac!  I have this great romantic vision of America, which is typical of somebody who hasn't been there, and which is, therefore, the appeal of so many of your songs, and the appeal of John Stewart's songs, for instance.

Well, my songs are very American.  In fact, that's been a problem in foreign countries.  It's been a problem in England, because of people not understanding some of the colloquialisms.  Of course, I never intended to write songs for people in England.  It just happens to happen that way.  I was really writing songs for people that lived the same way I did, and knew all the things I know.  I wasn't even writing for people in New York City.  Country music's just expanded now.  I wonder how much people understand about what they hear.  Some of the things are universal, but sometimes you get into things that I'm sure have got to be difficult to understand.  In the same way there are songs over here that are difficult for me to understand.

It would have been maybe a couple of years after you got to Nashville that you cut the first album which was released in 1968 and produced by Felton Jarvis.  Was he working with Elvis then?

No, he fact, that's the reason I left RCA.  He got sick first, he had kidney failure.  That was rough, he couldn't get in the studio.  Then Steve Sholes died, the guy that signed me to RCA and also signed Elvis.  Then Elvis hit with 'In the Ghetto' and he was so demanding of all of Felton's time that I just asked to be released.  The contract was for five years but, fortunately, I had asked Steve Sholes if for any reason Felton couldn't produce me that I could get clear of the label, because I didn't know anybody else there.  At the time I was very independent, too.  I always have been independent, but I was independent for that time.  I didn't cut an album until somebody came to me with money and I did it all on my own terms, all except for having a say-so about how the album was cut.  They were really anxious to sign me because I had written so many hits that year.  At one time I had the number one record on three of the American charts, and the number two record on the fourth chart.  The rhythm 'n' blues, country, pop and easy listening charts.  But it didn't raally mean much at the time, because people in the country field didn't watch pop charts, people in the pop field didn't watch blues charts and so on.

Let's introduce Townes Van Zandt into this conservation, as I see he co-wrote a couple of things with you during your RCA time.

Well, I won't go into any personal things with Townes about his life, or anything, but I will tell you something.  For one thing, he's an old friend.  I've known him since about '64.  I would say he's probably the best writer I've ever heard.  That's about all.

Brief, but I guess that says it all!  Now, after "Harlequin Melodies" it was a year later in 1969 that Mercury released "Looks Like Rain".  Just to digress into deeper trivia for a moment, you were living on a boat then, weren't you?

Well, I had a cabin on Centrehill Lake and I had a boat on Old Hickory Lake.  I lived on the boat until three years ago.
Two different boats, to be accurate.  First a small 38 footer, then I bought a 50 footer.  It was a big boat with two 350 horse power engines, could do close to 40 mph.  We went on trips.  Almost to the Mississippi River one time, over 500 miles. Reallly a great way to get away from everything.  No telephones!  Finally got rid of it, though.  The first baby was born and it got too difficult, too confined.  We bought the house in Eugene, Oregon.  I was away from Nashville a lot of the year and I couldn't take care of it, they require a lot of upkeep.

Back to the first album and then your move to Mercury.  How did the RCA album sell?

It didn't sell.  Got alot of critical praise from the industry.

So you were able to accept the best record deal offered rather than shop around.  Why Mercury?

Because of Jerry Kennedy and Bob Beckham.

It doesn't sound at all dated.

There's a continuity to all the albums, I think, except for the RCA album.  Again, it was supposed to be a long term deal, but we had alot of problems.  After I cut the album the president of the company made a statement, over here in England as a matter of fact, that he was disappointed in the album, it wasn't what he bought.  He thought I was going to be like Jerry Lee Lewis.  Wesley, who was with him at the time, said, "Did you ever listen to him before you signed him?"  He said, "No, I just took the word of other people."  It got back to me before the album was ever released, so I was already soured on the label when it did come out.  Then there was a lot of other things.  I went to NewYork City to work The Bitter End.  I was the firet country act ever to work The Bitter End.  I was the first act that had ever been on Mercury Records that had been reviewed by the NewYork Times.  Got a half page story.  When I got to NewYork the people from Mercury Records didn't even know I was there or who I was.  The head of promotion came in and just flipped, we started talking and he asked me what label I was on!  It was really just a total miss so I got out.  I raised so much hell with the label, and I bought my album away from them.  I got it released from the label.

Back to the biog datails, which tell me you went to Los Angeles with Kris Kristofferson to work on a John Hartford TV Show, and this was where you met your wife, Susan.

I had met Susan before then.  She was with The New Christy Minstrels and I had met her in Nashville through Kenny Rogers, because he was in the Christys, too.  Then I ran into her again in Los Angeles.  We were married shortly after.  After the "Looks Like Rain" album, too.

So you got out of one deal and into another!  1970 we move on to.  RCA released this "Mickey Newbury Sings His Own". You sang at the Big Sur Folk Festival.

That was awful.  The Festival was great.  It was just that when we performed we sat all day waiting to perform.  We all went on stage together early in the morning.  All day long we sat in the cold, it was about 40 degrees and the wind was blowing off the Ocean.  By the time I got up to sing I couldn't even talk, I was so cold, and I couldn't hold the guitar strings.  I was on right at the end of the show as the sun was going down.  I've never been so miserable in my life and tried to perform.  It was terrible.....terrible!

Before we go on to "Frisco Mabel Joy", which was your first album on Elektra, we ought to find out how you got onto the label.  After all the trouble with RCA and Mercury, you must have been happy to find a company that, in the end, you stayed with for a while.

It was quite a while before I signed with anybody else as a matter of fact.  In fact, I almost decided not to record.  Then I got the bug.  A couple of labels started calling me.....they were really calling me hard round about the time I signed with Elektra.
I was getting calls from just about all the major labels.  Of course, I was insisting they buy the old Mercury album from me and that was the wedge.  Also, I was insisting I had control over what was done on the album, so I could produce the album myself, or hire my own producers, which is the deal with every label I've had except for RCA.  That was real unusual for the time.  Plus I told them I wouldn't work the road, which means it's hard for them to promote records, and Elektra was the only label that came through with the deal.  I just said I would sign for the first label that would come through with the deal.  After I made the deal, all the other labels screamed I didn't give them a chance.  They had a chance.  I just wasn't in the market to get into any kind of bidding wars, or anything like that.

I'm not going to ask you about 'American Trilogy' because you must get asked how that came about all the time.  I should think that's the biggest hit you've had as an artist to date, and because Presley had the worldwide hit, it must have been the one which gave you the most attention and focussed attention upon you.

Probably so. It's hard to say.  Just Dropped In To See What ConditionMy ConditionWas In' was a world hit.  Funnily enough, it was probably very detrimental more than a help, because it was a reworking of other songs and it was not indicative of what I really do.  It was not something I cared to follow up.  I had planned to do 'Shenandoah' and all these things then, and a lot - of people thought that song could have been a follow up hit if I'd done it.  I decided not to because if I did I would be locked into this kind of music.  That's what people would expect from then on.

Dennis Linde produced your first Elektra album.

Yeah, he's a tremendous talent.  He's a producer and a songwriter and a musician, and he's probably one of the best.  I enjoyed working with him but we had problems.  He got sick, too.  Almost died!

"Frisco Mabel Joy" was followed by "Heaven Help The Child" which you wrote in '72, and won 10000 dollars for you when you sang it and won the Grand Prize at the Tokyo Music Festival.

I didn't write it specifically for the Festival.  It was one of three or four songs they submitted and that was accepted, so I went out to Japan.  It was a nice trip.  Surprised me, too.  There were a lot of major artists in the preliminaries, Mac Davis, Vikki Carr, a lot of people, but the two that made it to the finals were Olivia Newton-John and Paul Williams.  There were artists from all over the world.  Russia, Belgium, Phillipines and everywhere.  There was about forty in the finals.  It was really quite something to win that.  Surprised me.

All the string sounds on the "Heaven Help The Child" and "Frisco Mabel Joy" albums are all pedal steel.  That big instrurnental sound after the 'Trilogy'.  It's all steel guitars, there's not a string or a horn there.  Actually, it's not just steel, there's electric guitar as well.  Charlie McCoy, Weldon Myrick, Wayne Moss.  I record by doing the vocal with just acoustic guitar first, then everything else is overdubbed.  That way, at least you know what you're getting when you're laying it down. Every instrurnent has a reason for being there.

That second Elektra album contains the song which is probably my favourite of yours, 'Cortelia Clark'.  You talked about it on your live album, but is there anything more you'd like to tell me about how you came to write it?

That's just about it, Pete.  That's just about the whole story.  The whole story's right there in the song and what was said.  I can't shed any new light on it, really.  (So here's a transcription of what he said on the live album).  In Nashville where I've lived for about the last ten years, up until about four years ago there was an old man there I used to go in and listen to all the time.  He sold paper bags down on Connor Street.  He was a blind man and he played guitar and he was really a great old guy.  He won a Grammy, believe it or not.  A few years ago RCA Victor went out on the street with a tape recorder and taped him while he was out there, and submitted the recording to the section that deals with authentic folk songs, and he got the Grammy that year for it.  Didn't mean that much to him as far as his pocket looked.  As a matter of fact, it really didn't mean much to him at all, he didn't even know what it was.  Cortelia couldn't see it anyway.  I was in San Francisco playing at The Boarding House one week.  I got back home, picked up all of newspapers and went inside, started reading through them.  Found out he had burned to death in his trailer while I was gone.  I don't know how much it will mean ever to him, but this is a song I wrote about him.

I love the way you've given it this extra dimension by saying, "I was just a boy the year the Bluebird Special came through here....." and all the rest of it.  What gave you the idea to link it all together like that?

I don't know, Pete. I can't tell you.  When I started writing the song, you see, I didn't know it was about Cortelia.  I didn't know it was about Cortelia until it got right to his name down in the last verse about his dying.  It's just real strange how that came about, I just have no idea.  A man called from Kentucky later, and I found out there was a Guthrie, Kentucky, where there was a big switching yard, and there was a Bluebird Special train that came through there.  I then got in my car and drove down there to see the old train station.  Had no conscious memory of it.  Can't remember ever hearing anything about it.  I knew nothing about it.

That's happened to me a few times.  Happened to me with 'Heaven Help The Child'.  I didn't know there was a Biscay Bay. In fact, I originally thought it was Biscane.  Susan said, "Well, that's in Florida."  I got amap out and looked all over France looking for it.  Just when I started to put it up I looked out there in the ocean and there it was.  The biggest words there... Biscay Bay.

Was that an easy song to write?

Yeah, it just happened.  Some of the things were in my head for a long time, like "We're all building walls instead of bridges" was.  I'll tell you a funny story that followed out of that.  I was playing a big concert in Pittsburgh, and the day of the show I had my hair cut short.  I mean real short!  Back and sides, and my scalp was showing through on top.  I walked out on that stage and they didn't stop laughing for five minutes.  Eventually it quietened down enough for me to start into 'How I Love Them Old Songs'.  Man, I tell you that is the stompingest version of it I've ever sung, and soon they were all clapping along like crazy.....12000 pairs of hands.  They were making so much noise I could scarcely be heard, so as I reached the end of the song I just pretended to keep singing, mouthing the words but not making any sound.  Then I went into that line from 'Heaven Help The Child'.  Played it over and over, but still no vocal sound.  Gradually the people down front realised something had changed and stopped their clapping.  Then, like, pockets of people all over the auditorium did the same until the only sound was me playing that line over and over.  I kept that up for as long as I dared.....people were getting restless, must have thought that guy up there had totally flipped.  Then, right on the edge, I sang those lines, "We're all building walls; they should be bridges / We're all building walls; they should be bridges."  I got a standing ovation for those two lines!

All the way through your songs, I think it is this conversational way of writing you have that gives your songs an immediacy which a lot of other writers strive for but can't get. God, that sounds pretentious!

Well, I appreciate it, and I know what you're talking about and I try to do that.  I'm glad you did say it.

Earlier, before we actually started the interview you told me you knew in your mind everything about Mabel Joy.  That's remarkable.  It just popped up out of nowhere?

Yeah, and there's a similar story in my background, but I don't know whether it has a connection or not.  I tell you what it's almost like.  We have lived lives over and over again, and very similar things happen to us over and over again in all these lives, and we cope with them in different ways in each life, if that makes sense to you?  I know a story very sirnilar to that in my immediate being, in my family, yet it's not the same story.  The lessons are the same.

I do know that John Stewart feels he is merely the instrument through which these songs are presented to the world.

I think any writer will tell you that, who has really got into himself and tried to understand what is happening.  That's all you are, just a conduit.  My next album will be built around an evangelist called Jubilee.  It's been buzzing around in my mind for about two years.  First thing I got was 'Jubilee', this revival shout, and I couldn't figure out what the hell it was about.  I figured it might have been the Alabama Jubilee.  I kept lazing around with it, I kept trying to write songs, but nothing ever would come.  Finally, I started writing this song.  I didn't use the name in the song at all, but I knew immediately that her name was Jubilee.  I know things about her.  Her family had always told her she was a direct descendent of General Robert E.Lee.  She later finds out it is phony, but she has used that in her act as an evangelist.  I see her whole character and know exactly what she's like, who she is, all about her.  Just like Frisco Mabel Joy, same thing with her.  I knew who she was as soon as I started, I knew everything about her.  Weird.

In 1973, which was when the "Heaven Help The Child" album was released, the "Live at Montezuma" was also released, coupled with "Looks Like Rain".  It seemed to me at the time that maybe the live section was intended as a promotional record, then they decided that as they had the rights to the Mercury album they could package the two together.

That's what they did.  Originally it was just a radio broadcast.  The guy taped the concert to be played on the FM radio station.  Then there was a buzz about it being bootlegged, so the company decided to buy the rights from the guy and put it out.  It had been recorded at a college campus concert hall.

How much live work were you doing then?  As little as you're doing now?

About the same.  It either has to be a lot of money, because I can't turn it down, even though I could live without it, I just feel there's so much I can do with it if I don't want it.  I feel like I'm cheating other people by turning down lots of money.  It has to be quite a bit of money because of the bracket I'm in.  It costs me money to do shows.  I can't break my nut at the prices most people get.  Or it has to be something I want to do, like in the case of that show, or a few of the places I play.  What it really amounts to is I don't do many paid jobs.

Let me add that I was happy to have the Mercury album come out, but not like it came out.  I wanted to see it re-released as a single package.  It was just kind of an afterthought, just kind of thrown out.  You see, the Mercury album had become something of a collectors' item.  It was selling for 150 dollars.  A lot of people were wanting it and they couldn't buy it.  A lot of people didn't know that was it, so maybe if it had been released the way it should it would have sold more.  I've got three albums that sell like that, now.  "Frisco Mabel Joy" is a collectors' item, so is the first RCA.album.....unfortunately.

Next up was "I Came To Hear The Music", produced by Chip Young, who you stuck with for a while. I would say this was a little bit different from the other albums you had done up to then, probably because of some of the more up-tempo numbers.  I'm thinking of 'Dizzy Lizzy', for instance.  How did that come about?

Dizzy Lizzy was a disc jockey in Houston, Texas, in the 50's, and it's about a concert in Houston in the 50's.  The first verse was about Big Joe Turner.  Just talking about the concert.  ''Dizzy Lizzy do you remember when Big Joe copped the night and stole the show?"  "They say Clyde is back but he's not a drifter."  That's Clyde McPhatter, who was home on leave from Korea and had split from The Drifters and was putting out a record of his own called 'Without Love'.  That's the reference, "Without love, good God, where will he go."  Then the chorus, "But it's all right with me if it's all right with you, cause I'm just a kid of seventeen and rock and roll ain't nothing but the blues with a beat."  The second verse has to do with Johnny Ace's death, which I won't get into in depth, but I don't believe he committed suicide.  I think he was murdered.  That verse says, "Dizzy Lizzy do you remember how Johnny pledged his love to you and me?"  He had a big record called 'Pledging My Love' and was killed right after the record came out.  "He was not unlike this ofay ember."  Ofay is a black African term for white man.  Embers was the name of my group.  "When they want blood someone's got to bleed."  The third verse has to do with George Hamilton IV that was on the same show.  "Well, he stepped on stage, the house went silent, King George IV mocked someone from the crowd."  What happened was the house went silent when he stepped on the stage, and somebody yelled at him and they booed him.  That whole thing is about George.  Then back to the chorus where I change the end to "...but I'm not a kid of seventeen and rock and roll was nothing but the blues with a beat."  It's just kind of my own little in thing for myself and the few people that might understand.

There'll be a few more people now, I'm happy to say.  I'm amazed nobody has had a hit with 'Love Look At us Now', which is on side two as well.  It seems to have all the ingredients.  Then there's the closer, '1x1 Ain't 2' again a very untypical song for you. You might disagree violently.

No, that's a real old song, 1964 or '65.  The oldest song I've recorded.  Billy Swan was the one who talked me into doing that.  One of the sweetest guys that ever lived, most real.  One of the few guys I've known for all these years that hasn't changed, along with George Hamilton, Bobby Bare, Mel Tillis.  Very few.  He's a fantastic guy.

At the end of the album there's a reprise of the song that closes the first side, 'If You See Her'.  In particular, that little guitar riff.  Is that a common riff, or something you stumbled on?  It's certainly very distinctive.

It's just something I liked.  Another little trademark type thing to tie things together.  I put it on the end of the album to bring you back round to the end of the first side.  On the trademark thing, the rainfall and train effects and so on started with the Mercury album.  All the rest of the albums had that.  I like it.  It provides a flow.  You can have two very disparate numbers, but it eases you through from one song to the next.

I always thought you got a very distinctive acoustic guitar sound.  Is there any special reason why this should be?

It's because of the tuning I use.  Till recently nobody else used it, but now Larry Gatlin, Red Lane and a few people are using it.  I made up the chords for that tuning that never have been used before.  I hope it's a trademark.  What I was hoping was that the minute I hit my guitar, people would know it was me before I ever started singing.  It might not be like that too much longer now a lot of people are using it.

You like to keep your listeners on their toes, I think, and you really surprised anyone who's familiar with your albums and songs with 'Let Me Sleep' on "Lovers", your next album.  Was the percussion on there something you'd had in mind to have done, or was it something that happened in the studio?

It's just something that happened.  You liked it?  A lot of people didn't like it.  They thought it was too long and involved, There was a lot happening in there, and I just don't think they took time out to listen to it carefully.  I don't get tired of it.

Because you exercise so much control over your recordings, things must come out pretty much the way you hear them in your head before you go in the studio.

Not a lot of times, Pete.  It's really difficult, really a problem.  You'd like for them to, and sometimes you get small bits and pieces that do, but never an entire song.  It's really frustrating.  On 'Let Me Sleep' I did know I wanted the transition of two tempos fading across each other, then I wanted it to open up the same way.  That's all I knew.  Had difficulty explaining it to the musicians.  In fact, I couldn't explain it to them really.  I finally had them play something, then I counted off a time and played the second part, then I played them back together to show them what I wanted.  They flipped when they understood what I was talking about.

On ''Lovers" you begin with 'Apples Dipped In Candy', but not all the words are included on the lyric sheet.

Yeah, "Jake laid down his fiddle....." and so on.  They forgot it.  Jake was an uncle of mine.  The whole song was a reminiscent kind of thing, going into those kind of songs you hear on the riverboats.  Kind of a blues, New Orleans feel.

There's no musicians' credits on "Lovers".  That was an oversight, too.  It should be there.  They were pretty much the same musicians as on the previous album.  We used the same studio, very much the same sounds.  It was the Youngun Studio where Billy Swan recorded "I Can Help" and his next two albums.

You did go out and promote "Lovers".

I worked a few concerts, mostly college concerts, just to prove to Elektra that it wouldn't help.  They kept blaming the lack of sales on me.  My albums have sold between 35,000 to 120,000.  "Frisco Mabel Joy" supposedly sold 175,000, but it really only sold 120,000 after they got the returns.  I've never really had a major record.  It bugs me some, but I expect it, I understand the problem.  I accept it and deal with it, because it's my own choice I do it this way.  But it bothers me, yeah. There's no way you can get exposure unless you can find a place to do it, and then with the radio situation the way it all I can do is hope that word of mouth and time will take care of it.

On that tour I did two shows with John Stewart.  One at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles, and the other in San Francisco.  He's got a hell of a following in a few places, just like me.  He really is big in Phoenix, and I'm big in San Francisco.  There are places I definitely won't play.  I won't play The Palomino because I don't feel they would listen, it's not my kind of work room.  I won't play The Troubador because I don't like the guy that owns it.  It's the same reason that I won't do The Grand Ol' Opry.  They know how I feel about them, I've told them before.  I won't play there because I don't feel like they have sufficiently paid their artists since the conception of The Grand Ol' Opry.  They've made money without any of their artists realising any of the profit.

Having proved your point to Elektra, I seem to remember reading somewhere that you cut another album which they rejected, and that prompted the termination of your contract.  Is that correct?

Well, no, it was when I got through this album, "Rusty Tracks".  It was not this album entirely, but it was everything but the old things.  I asked them how much promotion they were going to do on the album, because if they weren't I was going to leave the label and I was intending on buying all the other product if I could, so I might as well have this one out of the deal. That is what I did.  I bought all the albums from Elektra and they're now all ABC.  They paid close to half a million dollars for all the back catologue.  Did the same thing, virtually, I did with Mercury when I went to Elektra.  For the same reason, I wanted the catologue intact.  Actually, it's ABC/Hickory.  Hickory is the Acuff-Rose record label, so it keeps it all in one place.  I fired my manager, fired my accountants, the whole thing, started out all over again.  I really don't need a manager.

I must confess, I was surprised to find the old songs on "Rusty Tracks".

I had a lot of songs, but I just didn't use them.  I got enough songs, probably, for two more albums.

Have you ever had the problem of the well drying up and finding it difficult to write new songs?

Not really, because if the well dries up, I'll write about the well drying up.

One of the stock questions.  Who are your particular influences?

Of the contemporary writers, Willie Nelson.  Of course, I've influenced Willie probably about as much as he has me, but his early stuff influenced me, the things he did 15 to 20 years ago.  Hank Williams.  Townes Van Zandt.  There again, it was an interchange of influences.  He's almost unknown in the States, except for a few people in the business that are aware of what's really good.  Is Guy Clark known over here?  He is another of my proteges, I brought Guy to town, helped him get started.  He was a friend of Townes and I first met Guy through him.

Your romantic vision of America is not totally false.  You wouldn't find it if you landed in New York.  The problem is, people go to the United States not realising the State of Texas alone is three times the size of Great Britain.  It's like they start trying to track down the Texas music influences, they don't realise the hugeness of Texas.  It's a thousand miles across Texas.  It's only 1500 miles from here to Moscow.  You can't look at United States music, even, and make statements.  You can only compare the United States to Europe, you can't compare it to any one country, because of the size and diversity and the difference in the people.  It's just like going to a foreign country for me to go to Maine.....literally.  It's what it says, it's the united states.  The states are like countries and a lot of people just don't understand that.  Texas was not even one of the states during the Civil War.  It was a country all on its own.  It was not even considered part of the South or the Confederacy.  The war did reach down into some of the southern parts of Texas.  In one part of Texas they're a lot like the southern people, yet in El Paso they are more western, more like the people in Arizona, because it's closer to Arizona than it is to the South as you'll see if you look at a map.  My two homes are over three thousand miles apart, twice the distance from here in London to Moscow.

There's something special about Texas music, there's no doubt about that, but all this stuff about 'the new breed of Texas singer/songwriters' and so on, is just publicity.  That aggravates the hell out of me, people who jump on the bandwagon like that.  Like Russell, some of those people, that are not even from Texas and have no contact with Texas music.  That really turns me off bad.  That's why I've never got into that mould, I've never done no shows, or anything.....those kinds of things just hurt music, I think.  It's just categorising again, making a new pigeon-hole to stick somebody into.  You got to be dressed a certain way, you got to be a drinker and a hell-raiser, cuss and make an ass of yourself, act like a kid.  I've told 'em I quit playing cowboys when I grew up.  I just get turned off by all that.  It's show business turns me off.  There's got to be a place for it, but it turns me off.

Was Nashville central to the way you developed?

Well, it might be the reason why I haven't developed any further than I have.  No, I shouldn't say that.  That's not true.  I don't know where my music would have gone if I hadn't gone to Nashville.  Say, if I had wound up in Memphis writing blues songs.  I would have probably still wound up down in Tennesse doing country songs, because a lot of the Memphis guys did. All of us start reaching back to our roots.  Even the early rhythm & bluesers from Memphis are now doing a lot of country stuff, so I don't know, it's hard to say.  Memphis became so polarised between the blacks and the whites rhythm & blues players.  All the rhythm & blues by Aretha Franklin and so on were all white pickers.  That was disarming to a lot of people, and a lot more still don't know that.  The blacks wouldn't let anybody know, they never publicised it at all that all the musicians were white, because it was the home of rhythm & blues.  Nobody can play rhythm & blues but black people.....that's bullshit.  Rhythm & blues is not uniquely black, anymore than country is uniquely white.  It's just more labels.

Mickey NewburyI suppose people try to stick the country label on you?

That's because I've done that myself.  I've done that deliberately.  It's probably been detrimental to my career.  There's lots of television shows and stuff, when they'd hear I was country they wouldn't even want to listen.  Johnny Carson didn't know I was country till I'd been on his show two or three times.  When I moved to Nashville it seemed like all the acts that were making see, Nashville, country music, has actually been the moving force behind all the contemporary changes in music for twenty years.  Rock 'n' roll rockabilly was country music.  Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Bill Haley and the Comets, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, they were all country singers.  Because of the fact that country music was a minority music and not widely accepted, in order to gain acceptance it was called rock 'n' roll.  Then it was accepted by the top 40 stations.  That was the movement of the 50's, and it was country music.  The movement of the 60's was Bob Dylan and The Beatles.  The major force behind Bob Dylan was Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rogers and Hank Williams, plus Rambling Jack Elliott who he got his singing style from.  They were all country, and he said so in many different ways.  OK, The Beatles came along and their major influences included Chuck Berry, whose major influence was Hank Williams.  That's something he's said, and The Beatles have said that some of their major influences were country, and they said they were influenced by Bob Dylan whose major influence was country.

So if you go right down the road, everything that's happened can be traced back to country music.  Then again, why not, because it is the basic music.  It is the root music, and country music can be traced back to the early English and Irish folk songs, so it's all just made a big circle, anyway.  There's really no classifications.  Rhythm & blues music had its roots in gospel music, country had its roots in gospel music, they both had their roots in the fields.  Working man's music.  The gospel music they sung of a religious nature was melodies from old English, Irish and Scots folk songs.  So it's all back again the same way, going round and round, but as long as everybody keeps saying, "Oh, this belongs here," there's a lot of people won't hear anything.  They won't hear certain artists they should hear.

When I first moved to Nashville, for an artist to make it outside of the country field, he would not claim he was country.  He would be called folk artist, western artist, American music totally disappointed me that any connection with Nashville and country music was played down.  I said if I ever made it I'd be called country, and I didn't care what kind of music I was doing.  Somebody had to make it and say, ''I'm country,'' in order for a lot of people to be heard that otherwise would never be heard.  Now it's thing to be and everybody that plays a guitar is country, all of a sudden.....or country rock. 'We're not going to call ourselves straight country.  That might be pushing it a little far.  We're country rock, or country outlaws, or some other kind of shit.  Progressive country music, soft rock, cosmopolitan rock, easy listening country, city country. Just ridiculous.

I hope you got enough there to do something with.


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