Artists reveal much about themselves in their choice of cover versions to record or perform. For her latest release Gretchen Peters has devoted an entire album to the songs of Mickey Newbury, who she regards as her greatest sources of inspiration. The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury is a tribute to an artist whose acclaim never came near the levels he deserved. Through her sensitive, stripped back reworking Peters also demonstrates how songs are living things.
Peters has identified with Mickey Newbury even since her early days as a songwriter. She saw herself through her songs just as he saw himself. Both rejected the Nashville production line, manufacturing songs to a formula just to please the marketing people. Through such independence, both may have denied themselves far greater financial reward and fame, but equally music fans would have been denied some of the most lucid writing and original sounds in country and Americana.
Peters did not confine herself only to Newbury’s greatest hits. For inclusion she asked herself two questions; “did I love it” and “could I bring something of myself to it?” That resulted in some of his much lesser known material. Musically she is accompanied by husband Barry Walsh on keyboards and Will Kimbrough on guitar with some notable guests throughout.
Opener ‘The Sailor’ is a perfect example of digging deep into the Newbury catalogue. A favourite of Peters, her haunting voice with all its sense of foreboding gives Newbury’s original a completely different sound but without compromising the song’s drama and space.
There is a lot of Peters in these songs. ‘The Night You Wrote That Song’ could have been one of her own or perhaps that’s just how close she was to Newbury. The mournful longing could equally be from ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’.
‘Why You Been Gone so Long’ is the only time the pace really picks up. Peters recorded the album in the Cinderella Sounds studio near Nashville, where Newbury made the originals. Studio owner, Wayne Moss, who accompanied Newbury has lost none of his electric guitar magic on this version. That 161 artists have covered this song just shows how many artists loved Newbury. This version is a notable addition.
Otherwise the vibe verges on the sparse. Newbury’s bleak pictures are masterpieces. ‘Frisco Depot’ describes the abject loneliness of poverty in the middle of a city filled with riches. “When you’re cold there’s nothin’ /As welcome as sunshine”. The voice of Peters is that ray of sunshine to bring a glimmer of hope. Her harmony with Buddy Miller’s just adds to the pathos.
With even sparer accompaniment, ’Saint Cecilia’ is a shimmering tribute not only to Newbury but to the patron saint of musicians. Her voice soars heavenwards in this simplest yet most glorious song.
In the layered arrangement so much part of Newbury’s style ’Leavin’ Kentucky’ is a country song that builds from a lonesome fiddle, Kimbrough’s guitar adds another dimension then with more than a hint of twang from Peters, in come the others.
But in the end Mickey Newbury is all about storytelling. While that applies to all of the above ‘San Francisco Mabel Joy’ shows Peters applying all her own storytelling powers to squeeze out every drop of tragedy in this folk tale of a “young Georgia boy” who “.. had an ache inside to wander/ So he hopped a freight at Waycross and wound up in L.A.”.
Mickey Newbury did his own thing. He wasn’t part of Nashville’s mainstream but he was revered by so many songwriters. John Prine couldn’t have put it simpler, “Mickey Newbury is probably the best songwriter ever”. A formidable songwriter herself, Gretchen Peters has not so much copied these great songs but recreated them into worthy equals alongside the originals. Even after three outstanding albums of her own The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury shows that her artistry comes in many forms.