During his lifetime, Mickey Newbury was always regarded more as a songwriter than as a singer or recording artist. Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Linda Ronstadt, Charlie Rich, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, and Joan Baez all recorded his songs. That said, Saint Cecilia Knows (the Newbury estate's label) and Drag City are seeking to change that impression with An American Trilogy. It's a four-disc set that collects the albums Looks Like Rain (1969), Frisco Mabel Joy (1971), Heaven Help the Child (1973), and a disc of rarities; it also contains a booklet in a handsome, ten-panel, fold-out digipack. The albums, whose tapes were thought to be lost in a fire, have been pristinely remastered. Looking back, it was a small miracle that Elektra let Newbury make these records at all. Through his shrewdness as a negotiator and his track record as a songwriter, he convinced the label to allow him to make three conceptually linked records. The sound on them is like nothing in country music before or since: they are full of sound effects, spatial ambience, and melodrama, and delivered with subtlety and a novelist's attention to detail. The music merged minimal country tropes with Texas songwriter storytelling and Southern gospel, and employed contemporary folk and pop arrangements. Looks Like Rain reveals Newbury's writing range and production savvy. The sound effects (such as an incessant rain throughout) and delicate psychedelic embellishments etch the record in its time, but there is so much space surrounding songs like "She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye," "33rd of August," and "San Francisco Mabel Joy" that they stun in their quiet intensity. Newbury's grainy tenor and his elegant phrasing keep the album from descending into pure desperation. On 'Frisco Mabel Joy, the studio becomes more of a musical instrument. It opens with Newbury's "An American Trilogy," which contains the Civil War-era songs "Dixie," "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "All My Trials." Elvis may have (over)blown it as a theatrical patriot's anthem, but Newbury's version is restrained and elegiac, as if the promise and hope expressed in those songs has been lost -- or even erased -- along history's way. It introduces the rest of the album, where rain continues to fall, women continue to depart, and problems mount; the characters in these songs question life metaphorically and literally. In lieu of the opener, it's easy to hear "How I Love Them Old Songs" and "The Future's Not What It Used to Be" are insightful questions to a nation at large. The instrumental interludes and the depth of emotion in "Frisco Depo" and "How Many Times (Must the Piper Be Paid for His Song)" are devastating personal narratives. Heaven Help the Child is a progression; it feels more like a Jimmy Webb record than anything else. Its pop arrangements are more pronounced, but the songs, whether they be historical tales (the title track, which takes place in 1912, and "Cortelia Clark"); broken love songs ("Sweet Memories," and "Good Morning Dear"), or the lone redemptive paean to romance ("Song for Susan" -- Newbury's wife), lose none of their emotional power. The re-recording of "San Francisco Mabel Joy" that closes the disc underscores the personal vision of the songwriter who inhabits each song on these three albums. The rarities disc is just that. It contains demos, unreleased tracks, and a radio performance, and is well worth inclusion. What Newbury displayed on these records was an American life, whose experiences crossed race, class, and even historical boundaries. The set is an essential document that places Newbury in the pantheon of singer/songwriters where he has always belonged.