“Better Days,” a previously-unreleased country blues song from Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Mickey Newbury, is a clear touchstone for the work of Newbury’s peers and better-known songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson.
As Sean L. Maloney writes in a recent review, “It’s impossible to understate the man’s influence – the man changed the way American music sounds.”
In a new 2,000-copy box set titled An American Trilogy, the indie label Drag City, home to Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Joanna Newsom, have brought into view Newbury’s trilogy of albums produced between 1969-1974: Looks Like Rain, Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help The Child. A fourth disc, titled Better Days, from which the song “Better Days” comes, collects unreleased material from the same period.
Newbury, who first established himself in Nashville as a writer for the revered publishing house, Acuff-Rose, went on to breathe new life into the artistic community there with the three albums, recorded up the road from East Nashville, at Madison, Tennessee’s Cinderella Sound.
In “Better Days,” Newbury reflects, regrets, and resolves to move on. The song combines the stark realism of Robert Johnson and the melancholy poetics of Leonard Cohen, and falls in the same vein as Newbury’s rainy “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye” or Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Tom Waits also probably picked up a thing or two from the way Newbury could turn a self-reflexive phrase that seems to mean hardly anything at all, yet takes the whole universe down with it, as in the line, “But there’s nothing when it’s over but the end.” (Waits’ “Hold On” from Mule Variations certainly comes to mind here.)
Well my woman up and left me, lord, this morning
Just packed up my dreams and walked away
I can’t say her leaving’s caught me with no warning
She got tired of looking for them better days
It seemed the sunshine never found our window
The sky got so blue it turned to gray
But a tree gotta bend the way the wind blows
Or the wind is gonna blow that tree away
Oh, the road sure got rough, lord, where I been
So many times I thought I’d just call it a day
But there’s nothing when it’s over but the end
So I guess I gotta find a better way
On a Greyhound bound for San Francisco
My lady’s really gone to stay
But a man’s gotta bend the way the wind blows
Or the wind gonna blow that man away
Written by Mickey Newbury