At a recent Saturday night house party, a hootenanny broke out, which tends to happen when Joe Newberry is around. He sat with guitar on his knee and fedora on his head, in the company of a half-dozen players trading songs – old fiddle tunes, Neil Young covers and such.
But as the evening wore on, each person came to realize that the guy in the fedora was really good. Not just good, special. Without even trying, Newberry drew the room toward him as the other players began taking cues from him. Like a good hootenanny leader, he made sure everyone got a little time out front. And when he took a tune himself, he brought the rest of the room to a hush as he sang in a plainspoken voice.
As the last note faded, more than one listener was wiping back a tear. Which was fitting, since the song was called “I Know Whose Tears.”
“That’s beautiful,” someone said. “Who wrote that?”
“I did,” Newberry said quietly.
Newberry gets that a lot. In life as well as performance, he’s about as deferential and gracious as can be. His day job is public information officer for the state Department of Cultural Resources, in which capacity his job is to call attention to others. And he’s one of the North Carolina old-time music community’s linchpins – always ready and reliable, the guy you call when you’re in need of another banjo, guitar or voice.
“He’s a very generous collaborator,” says singer/songwriter Laurelyn Dossett, who enlisted Newberry for her 2011 holiday song cycle “The Gathering,” which the N.C. Symphony premiered last year. “Whether it’s something like ‘The Gathering’ or a house party, he always treats it as a gathering of equals, an ensemble. That’s more unusual than you might think with musicians.”
At the same time, Newberry is just so darned good that people eventually notice. And last month, he got a priceless moment in the spotlight at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards in Nashville, the “Hillbilly Grammys” ceremony that will be held in Raleigh in 2013.
As recorded by the Gibson Brothers and Ricky Skaggs, Newberry’s composition “Singing As We Rise” won best gospel song. And he was there for the occasion at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium.
“To be at the Ryman, where bluegrass started with Bill Monroe back in the 1940s, and to hear my name called, it was a little unearthly,” Newberry says. “Just unreal. I kept telling myself it was an honor just to be nominated – and it was, there were some amazing folks in that category – but to actually win just took it to a whole other level.”
Deciding to stay
Newberry’s stock quip about his background is that he’s not from North Carolina, “but I got here just as quick as I could.” Born and raised in Missouri, he was on his way through the Triangle 30 years ago when his car broke down. By the time the car was running again, he’d decided he liked it here enough to stay.
Over the years, Newberry’s jobs have included editor of the Chapel Hill News, carpenter and stay-at-home dad. He landed at the department of cultural resources in 2005, and most of his work there happens out of sight. But others in the arts community notice.
“Joe’s one of those guys who doesn’t get as much credit as he should for his job,” says William Lewis, executive director of the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music. “He’s kind of the ghost man at the department of cultural resources, behind the scenes. But he’s a great communicator and storyteller, and a fantastic musician.”
Newberry, 55, jokes that he’s made “tens of dollars in music,” which has always been his passion if not his livelihood. He frequently teaches at music conventions and keeps busy with a half-dozen different groups. Along with Dossett’s “The Gathering” ensemble, there are the old-time groups the Jumpsteady Boys and Big Medicine; duos with blues guitarist Jon Shain and mandolinist Mike Compton; and “the law firm” of Craver, Hicks, Watson & Newberry, featuring various Red Clay Ramblers alumni.
In all his doings, Newberry has a reputation as an extraordinarily kind soul. Scott Huler, a former News & Observer staffer who served as Piedmont Laureate last year, tells about how Newberry called him out of the blue on Sept. 11 a few years ago, saying it was an anniversary that always makes him want to reach out to people.
“Joe is an amazing guy,” Huler says. “A saint, a prophet, a Zen master. Of everyone I know, I’d say he’s the person who comes closest to walking the walk. Some people ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’ I ask, ‘What would Joe Newberry do?,’ which is not an exaggeration. We’re lucky to share the planet with him.”
Music that helps
For all that, songwriting has given Newberry his highest profile to date. He’s always written, going back to turning the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” into “Hang Down Your Head, Bugs Bunny” at age 5. And he writes a fair quantity of lighter songs.
But his more serious songs, including “Singing As We Rise” and “I Know Whose Tears,” are the ones that seem to resonate the most with others.
“I love the fact that music lets me do what I can to help people deal with something,” Newberry says. “Awards are great, but I’ve written some songs that have been sung at funerals. To have written something that helps people when they need it most, that’s as good as it gets for me.
“I’ll keep writing because I have no choice,” he adds. “It’s how I make sense of the world, get feelings out. It’s just part of the way I approach the world. I’ve just been an old-time banjo player most of my career. Then I turned 50 and got to where I’m an old guy, so I can do whatever I want.”
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