Kris Kristofferson cited him as a major influence. Elvis Presley often sang a song of his, “An American Trilogy,” to end his shows. To date, Mickey Newbury is the only songwriter to have three No. 1 songs and one No. 5 track on four different Billboard charts in the same year. He wrote songs that more than 1,000 artists would later cover, and he recorded three of his best albums – Looks Like Rain, ‘Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help the Child – in just four years.
But Newbury never grew to be as famous as the musicians who adored him, such as Kenny Rogers, Elvis Presley and Kris Kristofferson. He bounced from record label to record label, from RCA to Mercury to Elektra, rather than from town to town in a proper tour. Finally, after eight years of working primarily in Cinderella Sound – Wayne Moss’s garage-turned-studio in Madison, Tenn. – Newbury moved to his wife’s hometown of Springfield, Ore., in 1973 only to record sporadically until he became active again in the 1990s. He died in 2002 of lung disease.
On May 16, Chicago label Drag City and U.K. label St. Cecilia Knows released An American Trilogy, a box set of Looks Like Rain, ‘Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help the Child. The Rumpus talked to Grammy-winning engineer Steve Rosenthal about how he remastered these albums from their original tapes in his studio The Magic Shop, how Star Wars could be used to discuss the reissues, and why Newbury is still relevant today.
The Rumpus: Did you have any idea who Mickey Newbury was and what his music was all about?
Steve Rosenthal: Oh, sure. I’m old. So yeah, I knew who Mickey Newbury was. I don’t think I knew as much as I know now, but yes, I knew who he was.
Rumpus: What did you know about him?
Rosenthal: Well, I knew that he was a really terrific songwriter and that he was one of those songwriters that other songwriters loved, like [Kris] Kristofferson. In every generation of performers and songwriters are people who the public don’t get right away – Nick Drake is another example – but then as the years went by, the public finally caught up. So I knew that Mickey was somebody like that, a songwriter’s songwriter.
Rumpus: I read in some online forum that the original analog tapes for these three albums were in really great condition. What were your thoughts?
Rosenthal: Two were, but one wasn’t. One of the interesting things about Mickey’s catalog is that he owned his own records – something that a lot of artists at that point in time didn’t do. So as he switched record labels, he would take his records with him. I think that’s part of the reason why we were able to find these tapes. A lot of the times, when people leave their labels, and when their records come out on other labels, their tapes can get lost and it takes a long time to find good copies or good masters. Two of them were great, but the only copy of Looks Like Rain that we could find was really bad. It had dropout, it had wow and flutter – it wasn’t up to the level that the others were.
Rumpus: Can you explain a little of what you mean by that?
Rosenthal: There were literally dropouts on the tape, which means bits of the tape had fallen out over the years and so when we played them, you would hear the music go away for a split second. The tape wasn’t stored properly over the years, so when we tried to play it, it would also go “Rnnnfnrnrnnfnfnf.” It may sound silly, but that’s the best way to describe what wow and flutter is.
Rumpus: Do you know why [attorneys] Jeff Greenberg and [St. Cecile Knows labelhead] Chris Campion were so determined to find them?
Rosenthal: I do all the transfers here at The Magic Shop and the remasters series, which were the first 21 Rolling Stones records. I’ve done Sam Cooke work, I’ve done The Animals – a lot of restoration work here, and tape transfers. You really want to get what’s called the source masters, which is a fancy way of saying the actual track that they made when they were in the studio. That’s really what you want, and they’re very, very hard to find. One of the things you have to remember about records in the ’60s and ’70s and ’50s is that these were pop records, and they were disposable. No one was thinking that, 40 years later, people would be treating these as lost pieces of art. People were not thinking about it in the terms we think about it now, so lots of tapes were destroyed. Lots of it would get lost. Lots of band tapes would go back to their houses and nobody remembers them. There are just countless stories about why it’s so difficult to find source masters, but if you’re persistent and you just keep calling people and asking, you can find them.
Rumpus: It had been long rumored that these tapes were lost in a fire. That must have been very strange, to have been approached with this project when people thought they were long gone.
Rosenthal: It is, and it’s something you kind of have to deal with. You hope that the tapes haven’t been destroyed and sometimes stories are not right. But we were going to try to work on the best source material that we could find. For Mickey, and I’m happy to say, that for two of the records and for a lot of the songs on most discs, we found the masters. For Looks Like Rain, we basically needed to recreate the original mix that Mickey did with [producer] Wayne Moss. We were lucky that we had a really high quality transfer of the analog multi-tracks – am I being too geeky now?
Rosenthal: So basically the tape was recorded on a multi-track format, which means each instrument is on a different track. We didn’t have the two-track mix down that they made, but we did have 96k, 24-bit transfers of the 16-track analog tape. That’s what we used to make this new version of Looks Like Rain, which was done five or six months ago. I called up Wayne Moss – this fascinating and incredibly gifted guitar player and engineer and iconic guy – and we had a really nice conversation about Mickey and what he used. It really was very helpful in trying to recreate these two-track mixes on the record.
Rumpus: What did Wayne Moss say when you called him?
Rosenthal: He was just great. He had a very clear memory about a lot of stuff and really great stories to tell about making the record with Mickey. He was really very informative about what they used to make the mixes, why there’s so much rain and wind noise on the record. These records are very ahead of their time in that they are conceptual, in the way the songs run together. It felt more like you’re listening to one long thing as opposed to one song, then it stops and then another song. Wayne had some great information about how that all worked, and he was really helpful.
Rumpus: Those rain and wind noises – having listened to Looks Like Rain a couple of times, I know exactly what you’re talking about. They stick out.
Rosenthal: Last year I mixed the bonus track for the Rolling Stones’ “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” for the fortieth anniversary box set, mixed from the original multis as well. Anytime you deal with trying to recreate mixes from the ’60s and ’70s, it’s funny because you’re dealing with people’s sense memories. If you think about it, some people have heard these songs so many times, and they have a particular sense of what they’re supposed to sound like. So whenever you do something like this, you really need to respect that. You’re marrying the technology you have today, but you don’t want that to get in the way of the feel of what the records were like when they were first released.
Rumpus: What’s an example of a story that Wayne Moss told you about Looks Like Rain?
Rosenthal: Mickey wanted to have crickets, and he heard crickets, but he couldn’t get the crickets to make their sound when they needed them. So they brought them into the studio and they put them into one of Wayne’s echo chambers. Their great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren are still in there, and he still hears them to this day; they just kind of moved into this echo chamber.
Rumpus: Newbury seemed to be a very precise composer, and like you said, he was very conceptual. How did you decide what needed to be enhanced about the recordings, versus what needed to be fixed – more so directed toward ‘Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help the Child?
Rosenthal: Jessica Thompson, a managing engineer here, worked on mastering those for release. What she did was very interesting – she got copies of the original vinyl as a guide for the mastering of the CDs. The feel of vinyl is completely different from the feel that you get from the CDs or MP3s, so we wanted to go back and listen to figure out how to get that feeling.
Rumpus: What sorts of notes were you making about the vinyl versions and what sorts of qualities did you want these rereleases to emulate?
Rosenthal: You want to be able to let the dynamics speak. However, that’s very challenging because in order to the get the overall level of the CD up, you’re basically taking these files and making them louder, a lot louder than it was in 1960 and 1970 in order for it to be played on the radio and work on your iTunes. Once you build the levels up, you discover a whole bunch of anomalies that were sort of hidden, because things were operating on lower levels. (Again, I hope I’m not being too geeky.) When those things become apparent, you have to work on them – and these reissues are a perfect example of that. There are so many quiet passages in this records, with a guitar and his vocals. Now when you record modern records with just guitar and vocals, you’re not going to get that tape cut. You have to find a place where you allow enough of these anomalies to exist so you’re not being clinical with them, but you clean them up enough so people feel like, Oh, this record is really – it’s happening. It’s not totally crappy. It’s a real balance. I think my overall answer is to this question is that the music is timestamped. It was made in a certain time period, and you need to honor that. I think the reissues are really awful where people rethink them, like, “I need to redo that. I can do that better. I need to put this sound on the snare drum, or I need to change the vocal sound; that vocal sound is not happening anymore.” There’s constant reverberation on his records. Now I know reverb is very hip right now – it’s being used by a lot of the local bands, right? So reverb is really cool again, but even if it wasn’t, that’s something that would need to be recreated in making these records. Keep the timestamp intact.
Rumpus: The remastered Star Wars movies – IV, V and VI – come to mind.
Rosenthal: [George Lucas] is playing with them. Just because you have the opportunity to change it up doesn’t necessarily mean you should. And that’s why when I watch IV, V and VI – which I watch a lot at my house, with three kids under nine years old – I show them the original versions, without any of the goofy digital creatures. I didn’t need to see the redone Jabba the Hutt. When they sit in the Millennium Falcon, it looks like they’re sitting in cardboard. I know they’re sitting in cardboard. I know they’re shaking it. But it doesn’t alter my beliefs – in fact, it makes me believe in it even more. So yeah, it’s a funny thing about going back in and reworking stuff. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and I’m saying that’s a rule we try to apply here.
Rumpus: Why are these particular reissues relevant?
Rosenthal: I think the reason why he means something now and why he should mean something now is the level of honesty – in these recordings, in his songwriting, how he writes, what he writes about. This is honest stuff, not any of that manufactured pop crap, and material from artists like that needs to be looked at if you’re going to try and create music that has any meaning. It’s like, why listen to Leonard Cohen? He can teach you about being honest – and that’s why I think he is very important and needs to be looked at. Of course, the people that his contemporaries like Kris Kristofferson realized it at the time because there it is, inside the craft.
Rumpus: What makes [the music] seem so honest?
Rosenthal: Well, one thing is that it’s a live performance; he’s in there playing guitar and singing. There’s some overdub, but it’s more like a document of a live performance, which I think that’s the right way to do a singer-songwriter record. Ron Sexton, who I love, has been at The Magic Shop a few times, and he goes in, sings and plays as the band plays with him – so a live document of what it’s like to hear him play and sing. Mickey plays and sings at the same time, and it’s a way to connect to the song in a real way. That’s another lesson that a newer, younger artist could learn from these [reissues]. A lot of times people think, “Let’s just cut a track and do vocals later,” but it’s funny because so many of the records that people worship from the ’60s and ’70s are more like live records, live documents. I guess having done a lot of the Alan Lomax collections, restoring the Alan Lomax material – and I’ve done his material for many years now – so my particular sensibility is something that picks up on is the notion that the document is a performance. It’s not that I won’t listen to Queen or something that is wonderfully studio manufactured, but for singer-songwriters it’s another thing.