Joe Newberry blames his arrival in North Carolina on the failings of a 1973 Mercury Capri.
On a cold January day in 1982, the budding banjo player, singer, songwriter and recent college graduate tried to start his decade-old car in a friend's driveway in Bynum, hoping to split to points unknown. But it wouldn't budge. He and the friends bundled up and ventured to a bluegrass party in a nearby woodshop. The fiddler knocked Newberry out. He sounded just like Red Clay Rambler Bill Hicks. That's because it was Hicks.
Newberry stayed, and to this day, he plays banjo with Hicks and the other surviving original Ramblers. Craver, Hicks, Watson and Newberry is their official name; unofficially, they go by "the law firm."
"We're just treacherous old guys," says Newberry, now 57 and living in Raleigh. "We have a ball."
Both in and out of North Carolina, bluegrass and old-time listeners hear a lot from Newberry these days: He often jams with Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion and records in a duo with mandolin great Mike Compton, who also joins Newberry in the quartet The Jumpsteady Boys. From time to time, Newberry even gets his old group, Big Medicine, back together.
But it's actually his songwriting that has been turning heads in recent years. In fact, when the Gibson Brothers take the stage at the 25th Annual International Bluegrass Music Awards this week in Raleigh, where the upstate New York duo is nominated for both Entertainer of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year, the odds are high that they'll play one of Newberry's tunes. Eric and Leigh Gibson's recording of "They Called It Music," co-written by Eric and Newberry, won IBMA Song of the Year last year. In 2012, their take on Newberry's "Singing As We Rise," featuring the legendary voice of Ricky Skaggs, took Best Gospel Recorded Performance.
Newberry's songs are simple, melodic numbers, with poignant and modestly poetic lyrics. They hearken to the root songs of American and European folk. Gibson first heard Newberry play and sing at a Davis & Elkins College bluegrass gathering in 2009. He assumed the tunes had been recovered from some dusty, 19th-century songbook.
"I didn't know who he was. We ended up jamming late at night, and I was just blown away by his songs. They sounded a hundred years old," Gibson remembers. "He'd get done and I'd ask, 'Where'd you get that one?' and he'd say, 'Oh, I wrote it.'"
The Gibson Brothers recorded several Newberry tunes they heard that night, including "Jericho" and "I Know Whose Tears," on their 2009 album, Ring the Bell. "Singing As We Rise" stayed on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts for almost a full year.
"There are a couple of kinds of songs that you can write," Newberry says. "One is where you say, 'I'm going to write a song today,' and basically sit down and write it. The other is where the muse comes and visits you and says, 'Here's your song. Don't blow this.'"
That was the case for "Singing As We Rise." An intense, personal number, it pays tribute to his late parents and sister. The muse visited Newberry while he was teaching at the Sore Fingers Music Camp in England. Instructors eat, sleep and breathe music, sometimes playing for 18 hours a day.
"You go to bed at night and your pulse is like ..." says Newberry, holding up his hands. He makes a low noise in the back of his throat at lagging intervals, twitching his fingers in unison. "Anyway, this guy says to me, 'Did you hear those larks this morning? They were singing as they rose.' I stood up straight, thinking about that phrase, and I started thinking about all of my relatives in heaven. I wrote the song in maybe a half-hour. I sang it in the instructor concert that week at camp, then with Mike Compton, and with Garrison on A Prairie Home Companion."
The lyrics read like a cross between Longfellow and Johnny Cash, touching upon his mother's perseverance and optimism, his father's work ethic and his sister's faith. The tune earned Newberry industry-wide attention thanks to the IBMA award but, as if the muse wasn't quite finished with him, it brought him something much more important, too.
"I get this email from the pastor of my home church back in Malden, Missouri," Newberry says. "He had heard the Gibson Brothers recording. To him, I was just this guy who wrote 'Singing As We Rise.' He said 'Dear Mr. Newberry, I'm the pastor of a little church in a little town you've never heard of—the First Presbyterian Church in Malden, Missouri. And I love your song 'Singing As We Rise,' and I'd love to do it in my church.'"
Newberry lowers his voice, as though suddenly transported to that holy space.
"And I said, 'Dear pastor, if you look at the third pew on the left, that's where everybody in that song sat, because you are the pastor in my home church.' I wouldn't turn down a Grammy, but having my song sung in my home church—that's about as good as it gets."
Newberry was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in the centrally located Boone County. Music and poetry ran in his family. When his grandfather was a boy, people would take the train to his little Arkansas town to hear him recite the Odyssey and the Iliad from memory. In later years, he hunted and fished with Vance Randolph, the great folk song collector of the Ozarks.
"I come from a singing family. My dad would sing party songs and gospel songs and country songs and funny songs and ballads," Newberry says. "I remember the first car trip I took with another family. I'm sitting in the back seat and I'm like, 'When do we start singing?'"
Newberry went on to study history and communications at the University of Missouri at Columbia, but he was still logging several hours a day playing music in his bedroom or at The Chez Coffeehouse. When he became The Chez's manager, he started to consider music as a career. But while Newberry has built that career and become a master at his craft, he's kept working day jobs. Still, work and music have never been far from each other.
After years with the North Carolina Arts Council and the state Department of Cultural Resources, he's now the director of communications for the North Carolina Symphony. He's been an essential part of expanding the symphony's mission—in large part, by connecting it to his own past. When he worked at the Department of Cultural Resources, he helped put together a program with the symphony called "Blue Skies, Red Earth," which mixed mountain traditions with symphonic music. The classical musicians shared the stage with a ballad singer, a string band, a bluegrass band and a clogging team. Since joining the symphony's staff, Newberry has played banjo and sung with the symphony.
"Music holds onto you. I sang my dad over," Newberry says. "He loved to hear me sing the Watson Family's 'The Lone Pilgrim.' So when he died, I closed his eyes, fixed him up and sang that to him, over him."
That's the song that first got Newberry onto A Prairie Home Companion. Big Medicine played during a Keillor book signing at Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books & Music. In the middle of the song, Keillor sidled over and started harmonizing. When the applause ended, he asked the band to play his show. Newberry figured Keillor was just being polite, but then a producer called: Would they play the show when it visited the Durham Performing Arts Center? At Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheatre, too?
Newberry reaches four million listeners every time he's on Keillor's show, but that hasn't changed his intimate outlook. His connection to old-time songwriters and departed relatives seems stronger than ever. He writes new songs that sound old. Ghosts, it seems, arrive to guide Newberry.
Several months ago, another songwriter, his friend Caroline Parsons, asked Newberry with help on a song. A widow had asked her to write about the fact that she only used smaller plates now that she was eating meals alone; the big dinner plates stayed in the kitchen cabinet. Parsons couldn't make headway with the idea.
"Once I heard 'small plates,' I just knew how it would be," he remembers. "This young girl goes to a bridal store. She buys plates for her and her husband. I knew that as time went on, they'd break plates, she'd be upset. The plates would become the metaphor for living alone. Once that was built, I started writing, and I did very little backspacing."
Newberry closes his eyes to recite the lyrics. By the time he finishes, tears stream down his cheeks.
"I found myself crying every time I sang 'Small Plates,'" he says. "Sometimes it's from you but it doesn't belong to you, you know?"
It took some time, but Newberry ultimately realized he wasn't just writing the song about the requesting widow. He was writing his own story into it, too, especially with the line, "He had some sharp pains, and he had some bad ones."
"My Uncle Willy took care of my Aunt Maisy. He did all the driving; she didn't drive," he remembers. "He was standing in the driveway getting the mail, and she was sitting in the passenger seat of the car. He turned to her and said, 'This is a bad one.' He was gone. I hadn't realized that I had put my Uncle Willy's last words into that song. It hit me like a lead pipe."
The muse is sometimes gentle and other times rough. Sometimes she even ruins the engine of a 1973 Mercury Capri. But she never strays too far from Joe Newberry's side.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Melodies to remember"