Mickey Newbury, “The Long Road Home” (2002): One Track Mind

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After a long and rich career, Mickey Newbury saved one of his best songs for the final album released during his lifetime. A Long Road Home was recorded in 2002, while he was receiving full-time oxygen treatment for his lung disease. On the album’s title song, Newbury sounds like a man with one foot in the grave, one who sees life with the piercing clarity of impending death.

The song, exactly 10 minutes in length, opens with a mournful cello that ebbs away as the singer takes over. He starts on a note of yearning: “How I long to feel the salty wind of Galveston Bay in my face once again.” It’s the longing of a man who knows his dreams cannot come true but still feels the sting of desire for more life, for “the East Texas woods” and the “warm summer wind” of his youth.

As the song unfolds its autumnal sadness, it tells of a life ravaged by a time. Yet, no matter how much the years took away, they couldn’t extinguish the fire in this voice that still burns with yearning, as it recounts a story that spans the second half of the 20th century.

After reminiscing about the Silver Moon Café and Route 66, Newbury offers one of his most powerful verses, about one Bud Rose who “hocked his guitar” and travelled to Nashville to become a big star. He failed: “Now he works on a bottle and he lives in a car.” Then comes an unexpected turn, as Mickey Newbury suddenly addresses the listener with a single, piercing question: “Do you still have your dreams?”

Regret and longing slowly make way for a spirit that rejoices as the world around it falls apart. Even as he feels the end nearing, Nebwury calls for more life, more recklessness, more fury:

Hoist all the sails, Bud, to hell with the breeze
Send me a wind that will bend every tree
A storm that will bring every man to his knee
Here’s to the howlin’ sea

As the chorus of back-up voices builds to a religious intensity, Mickey Newbury adds with irreverent bitterness: “Here’s to the piper: the bastard’s been paid.” The line refers to a song he wrote 40 years earlier, “How Many Times (Must the Piper Be Paid for His Song)”, about the losses that he suffered in life to become a songwriter. The piper has finally been paid, Newbury suggests, and “The Long Road Home” is the final reward.

At the end, Newbury’s imagination wins the battle against the present, which fades from view and he’s back on the road, “Interstate 10, El Paso to Phoenix,” following the wind back to his home in Springfield. That might be a metaphor for death, but there’s no longer any regret or nostalgia in his voice as the song hits home on a major chord.

It feels like a lifetime of joy and sorrow have gone into the making of “A Long Road Home.” In his final gift to his listeners, Mickey Newbury gave a document of his life that’s so beautiful and unflinchingly honest that it transcends his death and remains as a brilliant testament to his otherworldly talent.

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