The narratives of popular music are always being rewritten—underappreciated bands get their due, regrettable hits get discreetly swept under the rug, and devotees privately reimagine the meanings of certain scenes and sounds with the passing of time.
This week’s release of An American Trilogy, a boxed set of albums by Houston-born songwriter Mickey Newbury, should be cause for considerable rewriting. The mostly underappreciated Newbury, who wrote hits for everybody Elvis Presley to Kenny Rogers and was respected by legends like Joan Baez and Townes Van Zandt, has been given a lovingly thorough reissue treatment. The three finest records in Newbury’s discography, Looks Like Rain, Frisco Mabel Joy, and Heaven Help The Child (released successively between 1969 and 1973), have been remastered from tapes originally thought to have burned in a fire, and paired with a 50-page booklet that masterfully casts Newbury as one of American music’s most distinctive voices.
An American Trilogy is a standout release by any measure, but in an age where media is produced, consumed, and digested so quickly, the care and consideration that went into its creation sets it apart. Chicago label Drag City is putting out An American Trilogy with Chris Campion’s label, St. Cecilia Knows, so The A.V. Club spoke with the label’s Head Of Sales Rian Murphy about the record, as well as about the explosion—and future—of reissues in general.
The A.V. Club: Do you think it’s weird that nobody’s reissued these records before? More than a thousand artists have performed this guy’s songs, and people like Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson cite him as a major influence.
Rian Murphy: Yeah, it does. And, on the other hand, part of the thing about Mickey Newbury, and part of his bio that makes him so unique and interesting, is he marched to his own tune. He was a very early example of a guy who said, “I need to own my tapes,” and whenever he moved from label to label, which he did at least four times in the ’70s, he took his tapes with him.
[The tapes] getting mislaid was probably not too difficult, when they’re going from the vault of Mercury to the vault of Elektra to the vault of ABC. And then, the sort of fastidious nature that he had when it came to getting a thing right and getting a thing perfect, made enough of an impression on his family that they recognized that this was a thing that probably shouldn’t be done until it can be done properly. And they attempted to sort of privately release his catalog up to the early ’80s through their website, but all of those discs that they did were made from vinyl. I would imagine that they didn’t want to really do something real until the tapes could be located, examined, and now that they are, I think everybody else is going to ask the same question that you’ve just asked.
AVC: Even more so when one looks at all the liner notes Chris Campion wrote.
RM: [Laughs.] They’re extensive.
AVC: How long did it take to get all of that stuff together?
RM: I would imagine that the work that is just concluding now has been amassed over the course of two years of research, interviews, writes, and rewrites. And that is in an age when things can get done much quicker—but keep in mind that some of the people that he was talking to are from that former age where people are not just going to be whipping answers around on the Internet the way that a younger person would. And some of this maybe took some traveling and some driving, and some things that actually take time.
And we’re talking about a man’s life, and a man who’s gone, so it took some time for him to put this together and cover the scope that he wanted to cover.
AVC: He’s done a really nice job. And it seems like the Newbury family thinks so too; they’ve made themselves available for interviews about it. That must be satisfying.
RM: I imagine it took a couple of years to get together. But you know, [Mickey’s] family had been very involved in the reissuing of his records through his website, in the ’90s. One of the things that happened with Mickey was he semi-retired after 1981. He made a record called After All These Years, and then he didn’t really make a record for a number of years, and it wasn’t until the early ’90s that he began to record again.
And at that point, there’d been this shift where the power brokers who’d been in charge of Acuff-Rose and Nashville were [out, and it was] a new generation. And it became apparent that it was a different scenario than he was involved with, and at that point preserving the legacy became a little more important [to his family], which is a terrific thing. I’m always down for that, and I imagine that the family, it was very easy to convince them to talk. This stuff has been a big part of their lives.
AVC: Drag City’s been doing reissues since the mid-’90s, but in the past few years, it seems like the level of interest in reissues has grown considerably. In addition to major- and independent-level work, people are unearthing some seriously obscure shit. There are even labels that work on reissuing private press records!
RM: It seems like every month there’s another one or two [reissue labels]. It’s the kind of thing that’s dawned very slowly, I think.
The private press of the ’70s is what drives the whole thing, but now what we’re seeing is guys looking at the private press activity from the ’80s, which is an interesting period because it doesn’t take much to flip that into the DIY punk or new wave scene, and so for there to be something you could call private press from that period and not just a punk record, there’s a fine line there.
The Light In The Attic guys are great with that stuff, and here in town the Numero Group guys are great at that stuff. It just seems like every day there are more and more guys that are working that angle, even in the world beat area. We just try to keep talking to people and keep our ears open. If we feel we can work together with someone, it’s the same as working with an artist: “This relationship is a good one. We enjoy these conversations and our tastes in music are similar, and it just makes absolute sense to work together.”
AVC: It’s interesting, though, because we are heading toward a moment where buying music in a physical format will no longer be the norm. What do you think that’s going to do to reissues? How does something like YouTube, which in a few years will probably offer users access to almost everything, affect this equation?
RM: There’s something very gratifying about that [access]. Having grown up in an era where that wasn’t the case, I can speak to the mystery and the enigma that comes from really having to search for something. And I hope that won’t change, although I think it’s going to take more than 10 years to really understand how it’s changing.
I would hope that the easy access, and all the benefits and the awesomeness of it, doesn’t affect the way that people continue to look under rocks and in the bottom of thrift store bins for the next big thing in their life.
Because that’s where all this is coming from—people want something different, and what they see out in front of them isn’t doing it for them, and they’re looking elsewhere. And one would hope there won’t come a time when there’s nowhere else to look, because it’s all been covered by the Internet. I mean, we seem to be in a highly accelerated part of the process right now, and we’re seeing more and more all the time.
As far as the future is concerned, we already do see a much more educated young person with regard to this material. When I was in high school, Big Star’s Third was not a record that was commonly in print, and now it is in essence part of the canon. None of those Big Star records were in print. Yesterday’s rarities become part of today’s playlist, and I just trust that there will continue to be an evolution in the recontextualization of the past.
But it does seem like I know people who have built up this incredible knowledge, and a lot of it is based on a hard drive stuffed with digital files. It’s going to continue to develop, but it is a little hard to say what it’s going to mean.
AVC: Looking over this box, though, it seems that all this access, and the speed at which we consume media now, might actually assure the longevity of reissues, because of how much care and consideration goes into making them.
RM: I’d hope so. It’s funny, I was just reading about how Pink Floyd has big plans for their catalog, much of which has not been reconsidered in quite a while. And I think that, aside from Dark Side Of The Moon, none of it has received the full reissue treatment as we’ve come to consider it over the last 10 years. And so they’re doing these crazy four- and five-disc packages for each record. They’ll obviously include a lot of live performances, and the sort of de rigueur 5.1 mix, and then everything you have in DVD you have to have in Blu-Ray—and so they’re maybe a little bit excessive. But Nick Mason, when interviewed about it, said something along the lines of, “This isn’t going to be around for very much longer, this physical product, so we thought we wanted to get some really definitive things out there before the curtain came down.”
It is a funny thought that this shit is going to disappear. But we’re definitely operating under the assumption that if the rest of the world thinks that, then that’s going to be great for us [laughs], because people aren’t going to stop appreciating this music.
Like I said, we are thrilled. The album Looks Like Rain was a real shattering experience for us to take in. And to be a part of that, and the other records, each of which is able to explode interior spaces in our minds and our souls, is to be involved in disseminating that among people is part of our original aim in doing this, which was to shatter minds with records, you know, because it is possible, and records get right to the heart of it. We’re thrilled, and looking very much forward to forging into places we haven’t been before in order to make sure they go where they need to.