Mickey Newbury is the best singer ever. That’s a foolish statement, of course. I might as well say that Dutch cuisine is the best in the world. And yet, everytime I listen to Newbury’s recordings that’s the thought that drifts into my mind.
It’s the sheer range that hits me each time. Mickey Newbury can bark like Tom Waits but he can also sing a romantic ballad with perfect elegance and grace. His original performance of “An American Trilogy” still out-classes Elvis Presley’s cover to my ears, which is saying something. And anytime Newbury himself covered a song, he did it with so much intensity that it’s hard to imagine it done any other way.
A case in point is his 1993 performance of “Summertime,” never released officially but available on YouTube. Mickey Newbury destroys the song. That seems the only way to put it. It’s a brooding, melancholic version of the classic ode to Southern ease. Accompanied by just acoustic guitar and cello, Newbury sings the song like he’s standing on the edge of a precipice and looking down.
Listening to this performance, I often imagine it as being the soundtrack to the final scene of some dystopian movie. A post-nuclear landscape maybe, everything diseased and barren, some remmants of a decayed town, an angry sun scorching the land. And then, as the camera wearily surveys the wasteland, this eerie voice singing with cruel irony: “Summertime … and the living is easy.”
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