In our series Art for Trying Times, authors nominate a work they turn to for solace or perspective during this pandemic.
This road down to Nashville is like crystal and stone,
it’s a place where a man sells his soul for a song
The house is creaking, buffeted by westerly winds, Brisbane’s annual curse. The sleep owed me by the long day is held to ransom by the racket rising through the floorboards, the windows edging open, sending doors slamming. Cardboard boxes tumble and slide on the cold concrete below, and the patio roofing lifts at the edges, beating a random rhythm, tempered by the pretty pentatonic windchimes hitched up to a beam somewhere down in the dark. We don’t hear them often, those lullaby chimes.
The westerlies slide in and out through the Brisbane winter, settling around August with the usual winter ills. But this year, there’s no flu and few colds. The world is trembling under the looming Virus. And in the quieter, slower life that is now the norm, we have more time to listen and read and scan the channels.
I don’t know, can’t remember, what brought this album into my sight. I had seen his name, associated with Nashville songwriters — Kristoffersen, Cash, van Zandt — and with the arrangement of “An American Trilogy”, Elvis’ big closing number in his 72/73 shows. Dylan made sure he touched base with Newbury when he was recording Nashville Skyline in 1969.
Mickey Newbury was born in Texas in 1940 and died in Oregon in 2002. He moved to Nashville in 1965, and by 1969 had racked up a string of hits … for other singers. Sweet Memories, Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings — in 1968 he had hits across four different charts.
The album I’ve been falling into, relying on in this quiet time, is called Winter Winds. Released in 2002, it is an extended version of the 1994 live album Nights When I Am Sane. An odd thing to do, re-release a live album, but Winter is markedly different from Sane.
The picked guitar fades up, the voice, wordless, floats around a cello and settles into the verse. And when the chorus comes: “It’s the 33rd of August and I’m finally touching down”, we get this guy. He’s the guy whose “demons dance and sing their songs within [his] fevered brain” and we know him well.
We’ve all had those days, those mornings when brutal reality slouches in, slides onto the sofa and lights a cigarette. Looks at you sideways.
A storyteller’s voice
But it’s the second song, Ramblin’ Blues, that sends my neck hairs crazy. Newbury has a storyteller’s voice. You can smell the phone box, the fear, hear the kids yelling in the distance at the other end of the line — and in the chorus the voice soars, untethered, on a landscape of strings.
These strings set the album apart from its older twin. The strings, the sound effects — the wintry winds — the bass and mandolin, were all added later to Newbury and Jack Williams’ delicate guitars. Some purists hate them, but these embellishments helped me love this record. That, and the whistling!
Yes, the strings drew me in. They’re not cinematic, or showy. They just wrap the words and melodies in harmony and warmth. They’re structural and sometimes a bit dramatic, but carefully considered.
A few tracks in and we arrive at I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In); the cello swooping up to meet Newbury in his delirium —
I woke up this morning, the sundown was shining in / I found my broken mind in a brown paper bag but then / I tripped on a cloud and fell eight miles high / Tore my mind on a jagged sky
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in
This song has crept into the zeitgeist, thanks to the Coen Brothers, who used the very groovy First Edition version in The Big Lebowski dream sequence, and on it travelled – True Detective, Fargo, on and on. You can smell the trip gone wrong, the metallic fear, the suffocating.
There are lots of dark moments on this album. As there are love songs, full of heartache. The lost love of San Francisco Mabel Joy, of Genevieve, of Angeline. Aching, relentless loss in this soaring voice, the voice of a troubled mind.
Oh, what will I do / Till the need in me subsides? / Simply close my eyes / And try to sleep / And try to sleep.
And then, just the sound of the chill wind, and finally the distant train whistle, reaching into the fitful slumber. And then it’s gone.
So that’s been my accompaniment since the beginning of the year. I listened to Winter Winds when we were at airports and on planes. And then the planes went away, so I listened to it in the car, combing the empty streets just to get out of the house in the early lockdown. I have it on in the background when I write, keeping my words company.
But mainly I just relax into Newbury’s wonderful voice, and my spirit rises with those notes, and skips with the whistling, and settles into his sad and beautiful stories.
Some parting advice from Mickey:
I’ve been dying all my life … You should do the things today that need to be done. Tomorrow is too late.