Many years after initial concept, this Friday May 15th Gretchen Peters finally gets to release her latest album, “The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury” (Proper Records). A labour of love if ever there was one, it sees her reinterpreting twelve songs all penned by someone whose writing, and approach to making music in general, has profoundly influenced her over the years. Choosing songs from Mickey’s extensive body of work for inclusion, they had to satisfy two criteria; that she loved them and that she could bring something of herself to them. The two artists never actually met, Gretchen apparently had several chances when she first moved to Nashville but he was such a hero of hers she was afraid to do so, and Mickey sadly passed away from emphysema in 2002, this album release date poignantly being around what would have been his 80th birthday. Both share several things in common, including being members of Nashville’s Songwriters Hall Of Fame and also having a penchant for sad songs… Gretchen is often famously quoted as saying “Sad songs make me happy” and apparently Mickey would choose to play golf when he was happy but write songs when he was sad!
This album was recorded at Nashville’s iconic Cinderella Studios, a converted garage where Mickey recorded many of his own albums (one way he rebelled against the conventions of the city’s music business) with just Gretchen, her husband/co-producer Barry Walsh (on keys) and guitarist Will Kimbrough laying down each track initially. Additional instrumentation, using an array of fantastic session musicians, still ensures that the listener’s focus is very much on the lyrics, something Gretchen was intent on doing and which I particularly love about the album. In fact, unusually for Gretchen she plays acoustic guitar on just one track, the only uptempo song ” Why You Been Gone So Long” which frees up the aforementioned Kimbrough to let rip on electric guitar… the album is otherwise totally ballad driven… in order to concentrate her energies totally on her exquisite vocal delivery.
Although not wanting to record a greatest hits album (Mickey’s songs were very successfully recorded by an array of artists from different genres including Elvis, Tom Jones and Kenny Rogers) several of his better known songs such as “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) ” and the epic tale of love turning to tragedy for a poor Georgia farmboy , “San Fransisco Mabel Joy”, are still naturally on the track listing. I particularly loved Gretchen’s version of the latter, such a simply constructed song but she draws you into its unfolding story immediately with her heartfelt, emotional delivery and perfect phrasing. And “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye”, considered by many as one of his greatest songs and most famously recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis (” Just like the dawn my heart is silently breaking ” phew…) gets a stunning and delicate reworking which ripped my heart out.
As someone who was unfamiliar with Mickey’s own album output before (thank you, Gretchen for rectifying that!) it’s some of his lesser known writes that are among my favourites on this collection. He didn’t see a great deal of commercial success with these albums, being considered very much a “songwriters songwriter”, so I hope that this release will bring him a whole crop of new fans. Songs like the title track, taken from his 1979 album “The Sailor” (who’s title track opens this album) a gorgeous waltz and very nostalgic write which references the Kris Kristofferson classic “Help me Make It Through The Night” in the chorus… Newbury was instrumental in launching Kris’ songwriting career
And when it came to hearing “Saint Cecelia” for the first time, had I not known differently I would have sworn was a Gretchen original, of all the songs here it’s the one I can most see as directly influencing her writing.
As well as loving this album in its own right, I really found it interesting researching around it and finding out about Mickey’s life and career. So thank you Gretchen not only for another wonderful release but also for helping fill in some of the many gaps in my country music education!
Obviously the tour dates planned around this album release, which were due to start in the UK right now, have had to be postponed, but on a positive note a lot of us will have more time on our hands to give it the time and attention it deserves. I definitely can’t wait to hear some of these songs live early next year when ( hopefully!) we will see Gretchen back on our shores. See below for details!