Michael Nesmith

TrackAlbum
Calico GirlfriendMagnetic South
Nine Times BlueMagnetic South
JoanneMagnetic South
One RoseMagnetic South
Listen To The BandLoose Salute
Grand EnnuiNevada Fighter
Propinquity ... Nevada Fighter
The Upside Of GoodbyeAnd The Hits Just Keep On Comin'
Roll With The FlowAnd The Hits Just Keep On Comin'
RioFrom A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Michael Nesmith and the First National Band photo 2

Michael Nesmith and the First National Band (l to r): John London, Red Rhodes, Michael Nesmith, John Ware

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

And it came to pass that a decree went out circa 1968 and it stated that Country Rock was born and that it was invented by Gram Parsons (with a little help from Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn). I knew my place and bought the albums and didn’t dissent but was prone to declaring to anyone who might listen that the Everlys and Elvis might have had something to do with it while Parsons was still trying to figure out how to tune his guitar.

Move forward a few years and there was dawning recognition that another Byrd, one Gene Clark, was also involved in this country rock thing at a very similar time to Parsons and probably had just as much claim in terms of pioneering. Jump forward to today and Parsons and Clark sit together on those country rock thrones in the sky, having influenced countless artists who followed including several who emerged in the alt-country explosion of the 90s.

All of which ignores Michael Nesmith, who, in my humble opinion, should be sitting up there with Parsons and Clark (both of whom I absolutely love, don’t get me wrong) but isn’t. And that statement ignores the fact that Papa Nez/Nes is still with us. Thankfully, with a lot of those thanks to go to the medical staff who performed quadruple bypass surgery on the country rock hero in Summer 2018. But you get my point though I accept the fact that I might have a little convincing to do.

Nesmith was born in Houston, Texas on 30th December 1942 but moved to Dallas at the age of four with his mother, following her divorce. His high school years brought drama training and a start on poetry writing, but he left early for a two year stint in the US Air Force. After his discharge he enrolled in San Antonio College where he attempted to put some of that poetry to music. He was encouraged in this by new friend and musical collaborator, John Kuehne, who later took the name John London (and went on to be a founder member of the First National Band). In 1964, Nez, believing that a career in song writing and performing would get off the ground more promptly if he moved to either New York or Los Angeles, opted for the latter and moved there along with new wife Phyllis and his friend John.

And he/they were right to do so though it didn’t all happen immediately. By hook or by crook he got himself the role of hootmaster – which I believe is roughly equivalent to m.c. – for the Monday night hootenanny featuring new artists, held at the Troubadour club in West Hollywood. According to the story he tells in his memoir “Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff”, during his own spot he used to thrash away at Dylan numbers (maybe with some Woody Guthrie thrown in judging by Footnote #3) but one night he decided to include several of his own songs. In his words: “The four songs I sang were Different Drum, Nine Times Blue, Propinquity and Papa Gene’s Blues.” Randy Sparks, founder/manager of the New Christy Minstrels was in the club on that night and offered Michael a publishing deal for his songs. It’s clear from this story that several Nez composed songs not only predate the solo Nesmith career, they even predate the Monkees. Papa Gene’s Blues was to turn up on the Monkees’ first (self-titled) album, the story of Different Drum is told in the footnotes and the other two songs were recorded by the Monkees but didn’t see the light of day until they appeared on The Monkees: Missing Links series of albums, issued from 1987 to 1996.

All of which gives me a natural and almost seamless segue to the Monkees and I have no intention of ignoring it. In Autumn ’65, Michael Nesmith applied and succeeded in his application to be one of the three actor/singers (out of 437 applicants according To Wiki) to join Davy Jones in the new ‘band’. And I’ll say very little more about the Monkees because it’s already been said in a fine Topper from David Lewis. However, what I will do is proffer a Nesmith number from the Monkees’ era which rarely gets a mention. While I Cry from Instant Replay, their 7th, and the last to feature Nez, could well have been viewed as a great country weepie if only Red Rhodes’ steel guitar had been present. Not that the production was bad; listen out particularly for the Nez falsetto during the closing bars. Note also his melodic creativity during the middle eight, something that we were to hear with some frequency during the solo days.

In 1969, Peter Tork quit the Monkees and then Michael left the band in April 1970 although he had already started recording his first solo album, Magnetic South, before that date. I say “solo album” but in fact his first three efforts for RCA were credited to Michael Nesmith and the First National Band. The group consisted of his old mate John London on bass plus John Ware on drums and Orville “Red” Rhodes on pedal steel. The last named was so important to Nesmith that, when the idea of creating a group was mooted (by John Ware), he stated that he would only get involved if Rhodes was also on board (source: Wiki).

“Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmie Rodgers are to me something of a musical triumvirate. Somehow I always get back to them. They, like Dylan, Presley, Cash and the Beatles, had and have, a clearly defined musical position – A pure approach to what they have sung and written – free from euphemisms and alive with their own emotions.”

Those were the words with which Nez opened the sleeve notes to Magnetic South. Bold words, inviting comparison, but Nez was very much his own man.

Five numbers came from his Monkees days though the versions taped then were still unaired when this album came out. The opener, Calico Girlfriend, was one of those and boy, was it a great start to the Nesmith solo career. Up-tempo with Red Rhodes steel everywhere (to the extent that he was doubled up on the break), optimistic sounding but with mysticism present as well as a great dose of fresh country air:

Me and my calico girlfriend
Suddenly stare at the face
Of time and its hope that we’ll win
Then softly drop out of the race

It only took a few bars to hook me and with hindsight I do wonder why the Monkees original (entitled Calico Girlfriend Samba and playing up the Brazilian aspect much more) didn’t see release at the time. It was probably perceived as “too Nesmith”.

Folky acoustic guitar leads us into track #2, Nine Times Blue which is another from those Monkees days but actually written even earlier as already noted. Lyrics more typically country, highlighting that old conflict – “There’s a certain something in the way / You looked at me and said you’d stay / That let me know that I was out of line” – but with a jogalong rhythm which rather defied the words. What stands out on this one is Nez’s precision and placement of the words plus his ability to create a natural flow in a song. The only negative is that it’s too short: 1 minute and 36 seconds by my reckoning, but heck, just play it again if you want more. This is the clip and yup, it is that good.

But the track on this album that more than a few people thought was good was Joanne, the first real slowie to appear, taking the tracks in order. It was the A side of the second single to be released from the LP and it hit #21 in the Billboard Hot 100 (and #17 in Cashbox), #4 in Canada, #3 in Australia and #1 in New Zealand. It was a love song but a convoluted one open to a different meaning each time you thought about those lyrics:

Her name was Joanne
And she lived in a meadow by a pond
And she touched me for a moment
With a look that spoke to me of her sweet love
Then the woman that she was
Drove her on with desperation
And I saw as she went
A most hopeless situation
For Joanne and the man
And the time that made them both run

The clip is from a live performance in 1992. Same key but ever so slightly slower. More importantly that gorgeous falsetto is still there. It’s probably the first thing I noticed on the original record and it always reminds of the falsetto Roy Orbison unleashes shortly before the end of Only The Lonely. Both songs make partial usage of the good old doo wop chord progression. Roy always struck you as a man in a hopeless situation too.

Perhaps the two most surprising tracks on the set were the ones that closed the second side of the LP, One Rose (sometimes seen with the fuller title of “The One Rose (That’s Left In My Heart)”) and Beyond The Blue Horizon. Both date back to the 1930s and while One Rose had been recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, its format is some way from a typical blue yodel with a style that was more in tune with the popular music of the day (though one should note the opening couplet “So blue / Lonesome too / But still true”). The fact that it had also been recorded by Gene Autry might give us a clue to Nesmith’s tastes. He was definitely a fan of the ‘western’ side of music that was once labelled Country & Western i.e. that which was performed by the singing movie cowboys, Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter and co, a form of music that has to an extent been forgotten while the more roots based ‘country’ side assumed dominance.

I love both this pair but have given my vote to One Rose both for the manner in which the writer uses sentimental phrasing to adorn what is basically a blues (if not in a recognisable blues style) and the fact that I’m invariably a sucker for a slow stately country waltz and this certainly lives up to that billing, Add in to that the fact that “Blue Horizon” slightly disappoints, in that the rhythm that accompanies the melody line when the vocal finally comes up to hearing level after the long lead-in, packed with sound effects denoting waking up (on a farm perhaps?), is of a somewhat ricky tick nature slightly impacting the sweeping elegance that certainly I was expecting. Maybe this is just personal though (see also Footnotes). The beat might have been added to indicate that this guy and band see themselves as country rock. And heck, if it’s a blemish it’s only minor, I still love the performance. And heck again, would guys like Gram Parsons and Gene Clark have sung either of these songs?

Loose Salute, the second album with the First National Band, followed closely on the heels of the first. Changes were minimal. Glen D. Hardin (ex-Cricket and Presley accompanist) was the added ‘extra’ on piano this time; for the first album the role had been filled by Earl P. Ball. Felton Jarvis handled the production on Magnetic South but Michael himself took the responsibility on Loose Salute. Like the first set, Loose Salute got rolling with a strong up beat affair. Silver Moon started off in a deceptively idyllic manner before giving way to a much more wam bang chorus with a rhythm which to me is strangely reminiscent of Woolly Bully by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, though Nez was a tad more refined than the redoubtable Sam & co. Almost made the cut.

There was only one cover this time but it was of a number that’s usually included in lists of best country songs ever. It would have taken a supreme performance to have matched Patsy Cline’s original I Fall To Pieces and Michael and band didn’t quite make it but they certainly produced one of the better versions of the number sung by a male. The speeding up and increase of emphasis on the shuffle beat had the counter-intuitive effect of highlighting the agony of the narrator. A different way of interpreting the lyrics but still valid.

Michael had been busy churning out songs for the new album but I’ve ignored the South American delights of Tengo Amore and the splendid Thanx For The Ride (which almost warranted inclusion for the sheer magnificence of Red Rhodes’ cascading solo) and gone instead for another Monkees revisit. Listen To The Band was good in Monkees colours with definite country hues in place but this one’s even better with Glen Hardin evoking Jerry Lee on the joanna plus a fade-in as well as a fade-out giving the impression that we’re listening to a train on a parallel track that’s pulling along and then passing ours. And underneath all that exuberance there’s a goodbye song trying to get out; our man rarely stuck with single layers of meaning.

Album #3, Nevada Fighter, brought no significant change in overall approach but there was a bigger cast of extras this time including James Burton who needs no introduction and Al Casey who just might (see Footnotes). I don’t know if it’s deliberate placement or my tastes but tracks one and two are standouts for me. Michael had clearly decided to showcase his learning on the titles of this pair – Grand Ennui and Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care) – with neither sounding anything like a typical Grand Ole Opry number. Grand Ennui was a fun packed fantasy affair but not without touches of melancholia. Musically it was a kind of country strut with piano styling slightly evocative of the (later) Terry Allen. Wonder if El Tel has ever heard this one.

And then the countess I was with bent over with a kiss
And put a jewelled hand on my knee
I knew I’d lost the light
And I was moving through the night
Running from the grand ennui
Running from the grand ennui

Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care) was another one that dated back to the pre-Monkees scrabbling-in-L.A. era but you wouldn’t think so from the writing skills on display. Its title was something of a tease; the word ‘propinquity’ doesn’t appear in the song. He’d played the same trick with Nine Times Blue. However the song (Propinquity) was anything but frivolous. It’s as close to a gentle romantic ballad as the man has ever penned with the full punch line being “I’ve known you for a long time but I’ve just begun to care”. I do wonder if it was written to his first wife Phyllis but Nez has usually been tight lipped on such questions in interviews.

There was a reasonably strong hint on Nevada Fighter that the rate of song creation from Nez wasn’t keeping up with the production of records. As noted, Propinquity was a recycle and the second side of the LP was comprised of four covers plus a Red Rhodes authored instrumental. Not that the covers were unwelcome; they were all excellent fodder for the First National Band table. In amongst them was another, by now, predictable oldie in Tumbling Tumbleweeds, plus one that was bang up to date – I Looked Away from Eric Clapton’s (or Derek And The Dominos’) recent Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs – plus a Harry Nilsson number (Rainmaker). Perhaps of most interest in the bunch was Texas Morning which was attributed to Mike Murphy and Boomer Castleman. Murphy – full name Michael Martin Murphey – was another Los Angeles domiciled Texan like Nez and the pair had worked together in a band called the Trinity River Boys prior to the formation of the Monkees. He remained friendly with Nez and had contributed a couple of songs to the Monkees. During 1966 and ’67, Murphy and Owen “Boomer” Castleman performed in a country rock group called the Lewis & Clarke Expedition who recorded a solitary album (for more on Michael Martin Murphey see Footnotes). I should add that, technically, Nesmith’s Texas Morning wasn’t a cover since Murphey didn’t get round to recording it until 1979 when it appeared on his Peaks, Valleys, Honky Tonks And Alleys.

And that was about it for Michael Nesmith and the First National Band. Why did they fall apart if that indeed is what happened? Wiki only gives us a cryptic “No clear answer has ever been given for the band’s breakup”. The first two of the albums achieved low placings in the Billboard album chart but the third didn’t register. Follow-up singles to Joanne and drawn from the same albums achieved low to very low chart showings. And that was in the US. Other than a tiny number of diehards (true Monkees fans or country rock freaks), I’d guess that very few record buyers in the UK even noticed the artist/band at all though their reputation did grow in subsequent years. I stumbled across them sometime in the first half of the seventies via my practice of purchasing deleted etc. albums at cheap prices.

The Second National Band had an even shorter existence. One album saw release, Tantamount To Treason, for which the sleeve notes largely consisted of “THE PAPA NES HOME-BREW RECIPE” within which you found out that the musicians consisted of Red Rhodes (again) on steel, Michael Cohen, keyboards and moog, Johnny Meeks bass, Jack Panelli drums and, guesting, José Feliciano on congas. The recipe was followed by the statement “Michael Nesmith’s Home-Brewed Beer may be hazardous to your health” which might or might not have been serious.

The album was a disappointment and that mood set in from the very first track. Whereas on the previous three albums, the opener had set the tone superbly for what was to follow, on Tantamount To Treason we were served a kind of average rock number vaguely reminiscent of Chuck Berry’s Nadine with an intro to let us know we were in 1972 not 1964. It just wasn’t playing to the Nesmith strengths. The album wasn’t all bad by any means but whereas you could identify something or even several things of interest in every track of its predecessors, you couldn’t say that here. Yes, Nez was experimenting which does imply risk taking but the success level wasn’t high enough.

All that said, I was at some stage in my deliberations going to have a track from Side 2 of the LP, Talking To The Wall, in my Ten but it eventually fell by the wayside. While the title has been used on a number of occasions for totally different songs, this one came from a gent called Bill Chadwick – the entire side, incidentally, was comprised of non-originals – and I had to do a little digging to find out who he was. What I found out was that Bill was a friend and musical colleague of Nez in the pre-Monkees era. He applied to join the Monkees along with Michael and got through to the screen test stage. While he failed eventually he did get taken on board to fulfil various minor roles like TV show extra, studio musician, potential song writer etc. In 1969, he wrote and recorded Talking To The Wall with Nez at the production console. This is it and this is Nez’s own version. With no disrespect to Bill I feel that the belated cover gave the lyrics much more consideration. The final track on the set was the Nesmith version of the George Jones classic, She Thinks I Still Care and it was a pretty decent try once you took in the different phrasing, though he doesn’t get that close to the master.

If the public health style warning re Michael Nesmith’s Home Brewed Beer on Tantamount To Treason might have led the reader to suspect some Nesmith English style irony, then it was definitely present in the title of the fifth album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. No National Band this time of any vintage, no extras either; all we get are Nez and Red and what initially appears to be a set of new songs. They’re not though; they all date back to Monkees or pre-Monkees time. Given that this was his second album from ’72 it would have been too much to hope that he’d been slogging away producing new goodies. Only one, though, would have been known to the listener in advance. That was Different Drum and I, for one, am pleased that we got to hear the author’s version as well as the Stone Poneys hit take, and that’s not only for the quite stupendous steel work from Rhodes.

But it was another track #2, The Upside Of Goodbye, which just had to be included in my selections from the busy but subtle guitar interplay leading in to the song proper, through the delivery of that knock out first line – “There was an element of majesty / in the way the lady said that she / was leaving in the morning for the coast” – through the quite superb vocal throughout the number to the repeated final line – “If all the ladies leaving left like her” – it grabbed you. It was another Nez song wherein the title didn’t get included (but was a good summary!).

Pause while I listen to it again.

Though the tricks with title selection could be put down to immaturity i.e. wanting to be too clever by half, I have to say that I find them somewhat endearing. He plays another in Harmony Constant where the two words do appear but in mid-sentence in verse two albeit emphasised by a harmonising second Nesmith who comes in at that point:

Then, slowly my eyes start an effortless rise
Exposing the past to review
And the harmony constant in all of these things
Is the thought of the future with you

Underlying a very formal but still elegant approach to sentence construction and content there’s actually a simple love song. The only hint of any possible disturbance to this state comes in the very first line – “Quietly perusing my state of affairs / With nothing apparently wrong …” – but Nesmith doesn’t pursue this possibility.

If The Upside Of Goodbye just had to be included, then Roll With The Flow was screaming out for the same. A tour-de-force in anyone’s book. And any song that has the sheer guts to include the lines “There was this didactic minister / Who told me of sinister things / Which would happen / If I were to do something wrong” just cannot be ignored.

A couple of comments are in order in relation to this album. It was chalk and cheese in comparison to its predecessor – Wiki has Tantamount down as being recorded in February ’72 and And The Hits in March that year. While the first of the pair was undoubtedly experimental with considerable usage of effects and synthesiser(s), the second could almost be back porch jamming if it weren’t for the fact that the pair of them cook up some mighty nice jam (rather than the alcoholic stuff). Secondly – and it was Wiki again that prompted this thought – the lyrics of Roll With The Flow suggest a go for it attitude and to hell with the risks. Maybe that’s what Tantamount was.

I feel I should also pause at this juncture and say something about the Nesmith voice, something I’ve avoided so far since I don’t find the usual similes or comparisons to be of much help. I’ve seen it described as a weedy tenor but there’s no way I’d agree with that writer. It’s warm and it’s distinctive. But more than that he has the ability to constantly surprise in the way he wraps that voice over often quite unusual sentences, phrases and yes, words; apart from ‘didactic’ there’s a ‘lacklustre’ in the very first line of Roll With The Flow. At the same time he doesn’t ignore the country tropes, the bending of words, touches of falsetto and even the odd yodel, etc. If anything the And The Hits album has his best vocal performance to date. Couple that with sheer excellence from the pair of them instrumentally and you don’t find yourself missing other musicians. Add another mark for song quality and you’re back to the every-number-is-a-cracker style that largely characterised the first three albums.

Album #6, Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash, retained the country style – the clue was in the title – but did opt for something a tad more experimental (and lengthy) on one track entitled The Back Porch And A Fruit Jar Full Of Iced Tea with a monologue preceding a rendition of Bill Monroe’s Uncle Penn. That in no way describes the variety of techniques deployed across the 8 minutes plus of the performance; its arranged and ‘acted-out’ nature might have been a pointer towards his thinking on some of the later Nesmith albums. Overall there were three non-originals and only four Nesmith written numbers, one of which was a co-write. If I do have a beef with the LP it’s just that it’s too damn short, emphasising a tendency that was present on many of the RCA albums (see Footnotes). It had some good tracks though, like Continuing. The musicians had all changed again though a fiddler was included, plus, of course, Red Rhodes.

There was something of a break before The Prison which came out on Nesmith’s own label, Pacific Arts, in ’75. Nez’s creative juices had gone into overdrive for this little baby. Mixed metaphors had nothing on The Prison, a multimedia creation of a type that I suspect hadn’t been seen before. It consisted of a 48 page book containing an illustrated story in addition to the vinyl and the idea was that you read the book while listening to the record. I confess to be unaware of the existence of The Prison until embarking on this exercise since I didn’t find it in record store racks at the time. Unfortunately for the reader who might also be coming across this album for the first time it’s not on Spotify – which comment also applies to most of Nesmith’s later work – so gaining some familiarity prior to possible purchase isn’t easy. However, on the Nesmith-associated site, Video Ranch, you will find some quite chunky music samples as well as a review. Based on listens to this site I can tell you that the music can broadly be described as New Age meets Country with synths and strings plus flashes of good ole Red’s pedal steel. And don’t let the presence of “theme” in some of the titles fool you; every track has a Nesmith vocal.

Nez followed The Prison with From A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing and Infinite Rider On The Big Dogma in ’77 and ’79 respectively. I bought them both at the time but evidence they contained of a move away from country towards a less distinctive sound (not to mention an exceedingly long delay before his next album) contributed towards the end of my Nesmith purchases apart from a CD best-of when one eventually appeared. The fact that Red Rhodes wasn’t on either of the pair might have served as a warning. He did reappear on later albums with 1992’s well regarded Tropical Campfires being effectively his swansong before he died in ’95.

Back to this pair though: for me Radio Engine was the more cohesive and less poppy of the duo. Latin came more to the fore than on most previous outings with echoes of the thirties and Hollywood never far away. These two converged on what, for many, was Nesmith’s best-known track, Rio, the single of which actually got to #28 in the UK Hit Parade on 26th March 1977; it did zilch in the US. And it almost takes us full circle since I’ve always felt that the song contained more than a fleeting resemblance to the opening track on his first solo album, Calico Girlfriend, only he’d reinstated the samba rhythm from the Monkees days.

And I think I will travel to Rio
Using the music for flight
There’s nothing I know of in Rio
But it’s something to do with the night
It’s only a whimsical notion
To fly down to Rio tonight
And I probably won’t fly down to Rio
But then again, I just might

And that seems as good a place as any to finish. I know I haven’t included anything from Tropical Campfires about which AllMusic stated “Along with Lindsey Buckingham’s Out Of The Cradle, this album may be one of the finest and most underrated albums of the 1990s”. And there were further alums including a follow-up to The Prison. But I’ve run out of selections and I don’t feel like dropping any. There were plenty that lost out coming only from the ’70 to ’72 era. Nesmith might have gotten (even) more sophisticated as he got older but there was ample sophistication along with strength and passion in those early years, as is abundantly clear from the number of times many of those songs have featured in the numerous live albums we’re luck to have from the man.

I’ve not said a word either about all those clever things that Nez got up to between records, particularly that long absence from the studio that I made mention of. I’m not intending to but I’ll happily point the reader at Wiki who do a fine job in documenting the Nesmith life and his many achievements.

I’ll leave the reader with a thought. The ‘breakthrough’ of country rock in the late sixties wasn’t a breakthrough in terms of commercial success – Sweetheart Of The Radio only made #77 in the US, the lowest of any of the Byrds albums to date, and The Gilded Palace Of Sin got to #164 – rather, they became fashionable with a cult audience (though I should add that both albums have sold a lot more over the years and their influence is enormous). (And, yes, country rock did eventually become a mainstream product but that was due to the Eagles and didn’t happen till ’71/’72.) But, continuing the thought process, cult record buyers circa 1970 were unlikely to take an ex-Monkee to their hearts, just like that. It’s easy to forget now when the strengths that did exist in the group’s music have been burnished and brought to our attention, that the band wasn’t fashionable (in a cult cum music snob sense) when they were on TV and having hit after hit, or for quite a few years from those days. Hence, Master Nesmith started off his country rock career with quite some handicap. That he overcame it says something about the man and his music (though let’s give a little credit to rock mag ZigZag too (see Footnotes).

End of sermon.

Do I have to do more to demonstrate Michael Nesmith’s contribution to Country Rock? My inclination is to paraphrase a comment Waylon Jennings made about another Texan, Bob Wills.

Michael is a guy who’s probably done as much for our kind of music than anyone.”

Over the top? Come on. Michael was from Texas too. Think I’ll just mosey on down to hear the First National Band and Papa Nesmith sing.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. For anyone who might be puzzled that Nesmith left high school before graduating but managed to enrol at San Antonio College without a problem, I should state that Wiki informs us that he obtained a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) whilst in the US Air Force. Possession of such a diploma confirms that the individual has passed tests which are equivalent to United States or Canadian high school level academic skills.

2. John Kuehne/London was recruited by Nez as his stand-in in the Monkees. After the band had won the battle to play their own instruments, he occasionally played bass for the group allowing multi-instrumentalist Peter Tork to switch to keyboards or another instrument. He, Kuehne, co-wrote Don’t Call On Me with Nez, which appeared on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn And Jones Ltd.

3. Not a lot of searching on YouTube revealed the presence of a two-part audio recording of Nesmith performing in San Antonio in 1963, apparently for free. After some chat, Part 1 kicks off with Woody Guthrie’s Pastures Of Plenty but at approx 5:40 there’s a self-written song entitled Looks Like Rain prior to another Guthrie number, Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet.

4. Whether Nesmith was aware or not, there was considerable history of musicians born and bred in the Lone Star state, moving to Los Angeles to further their careers. Two big names spring to mind immediately – Nat Cole and T-Bone Walker – but there were plenty more particularly in the field of blues.

5. The song Different Drum was recorded by a bluegrass band called the Greenbriar Boys who included it in an album Better Late Than Never released in 1966. It subsequently got picked up by the Stone Poneys who had their one and only hit with it in ’67. While the Stone Poneys eventually folded, the song was the breakthrough to a solo career for lead vocalist Linda Ronstadt.

Although the song featured in a Monkees’ TV episode, Nesmith didn’t get round to recording it himself until 1972 in And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’.

6. The New Christy Minstrels was a large scale folk pop ensemble of a size which varied but was usually above ten. They still exist today but their musical range has expanded beyond the original concept. They were founded by singer and songwriter Randy Sparks in 1961, and, in addition to releasing 20 plus albums, had a couple of Top Twenty hits in the US: Green, Green in 1963 and Today, the following year. Within their ranks at one time or another were Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes, Gene Clark and Barry McGuire (who sang lead on Green, Green and co-wrote the song with Sparks).

7. I neglected to mention in the main section that Nesmith made a tiny handful of singles prior to his recruitment into the Monkees. Two were recorded under the name of Michael Blessing, though why he felt the need to take on a nom de plume I’ve not been able to ascertain. The first was a cover of Tom Paxton’s anti-Vietnam War song The Willing Conscript but retitled as The New Recruit (with a familiar riff thrown in). The second was a Buffy Sainte-Marie song, Until It’s Time For You To Go. The Blessing version isn’t on YT but there is a take of the song from Michael under the sub-heading Demo Vocal (for the Monkees). He also recorded tracks for the Rodan label and a pair got issued after the Monkees had embarked on their hit making career, obviously in an attempt to cash in. The A-side, Just A Little Love, was not without merit. Note the Dylan style harmonica. The flipside, Curson Terrace, attributed to Mike and Tony, was a garage style instrumental utilising the Diddley beat.

8. I refer to Magnetic South as the first of the Nesmith solo albums. That isn’t strictly true. To quote Wiki, “The Wichita Train Whistle Sings is the de facto first solo album by Michael Nesmith, although the artist credited on the initial release is actually “The Wichita Train Whistle”. The album was recorded in November 1967 and released in ’68, i.e. when Michael was still a member of the Monkees. The album contained ten Nesmith songs – one of them being a co-write – performed by a large number of musicians including members of the L.A. Wrecking Crew. It was non-vocal. Nesmith was both producer and arranger. I’m not offering an opinion on the set because I’ve done little more than dip into it. The full album is on YouTube as are several individual tracks. There’s also a full write-up on Wiki. In terms of the tracks, all had been recorded by the Monkees but not all had been released.

Michael Nesmith trilogy

9. The sleeves on the “… and the First National Band” albums have a striking form of design. To quote Andrew Sandoval in his Lookback at Michael Nesmith’s RCA Solo Albums referring to Magnetic South:

… the album thematically opens Nesmith’s American trilogy of blue, red and white albums (with a trademark needle point sleeve designed by Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean).”

After the Jan and Dean duo fell apart in spite of attempts to rescue a career that had been severely impacted by Jan Berry’s near-fatal car crash in 1966, Dean Torrence started a company, Kitty Hawk Graphics which designed album covers and logos for a wide range of musicians. They created the overall concept for the Nesmith trilogy and created the first and the third album in the series; the second was produced by a different company but stuck strictly to the theme.

10. Orville J. Rhodes, usually known as Red Rhodes or O.J. Rhodes was a pedal steel guitarist who settled in L.A. in 1960 and became a member of the famous “Wrecking Crew” of session musicians. Prior to his work with Nesmith on both the First National Band albums he had already appeared on the Byrds’ The Notorious Byrd Brothers and the Monkees’ Instant Replay. He would go on to appear on albums such as James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, Harry Nilsson’s Son Of Schmilsson, David Ackles Five And Dime and the Nesmith-produced L.A. Turnaround by Bert Jansch, as well as being present on many of Nesmith’s projects up to his death in 1995.

11. Calico Girlfriend Samba – the Monkees’ original – eventually appeared as a bonus track on the 1994 Rhino CD release of The Monkees Present.

12. The song Joanne has a mystery attached to it. On the sleeve of Magnetic South, Nesmith dedicates the number to Jack Nicholson & Mimi (who is presumed to be Mimi Machu who Jack dated for four years from 1967). However, Nez has never explained the rationale behind the dedication though there is a story that an interview exists wherein he stated that Joanne was a cow.

13. In the Notes to Joanne in 45cat, there is a comment that the melody of the song had previously been used for another number, Magnolia Simms, which appears on the Monkees’ album The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. This is the track. I can see some resemblance but wouldn’t say it’s clear cut and the comparison is not helped by the deliberate level of background noise. I’d add that it’s not at all unusual for artists to reuse elements of other songs they’ve written which at least is more honest that using other people’s songs.

14. The One Rose was written by Del Lyon (real name, Merlin Dale Lyon) and Lani McIntire and the first recorded version came from (brother) Dick McIntire & his Harmony Hawaiians featuring Lani McIntyre in 1935. Lani, who was an expert on both Hawaiian and steel guitar, was instrumental in introducing the steel guitar to country music. He worked with Jimmie Rodgers on his version of the song which appeared in 1937. In addition to the Gene Autry cut which also appeared in 1937 there were versions from Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, Teresa Brewer and Hank Snow. There was also one from Jerry Lee Lewis who Nesmith had namechecked on the sleeve of Magnetic South but it came out six years after that album was released.

15. Beyond The Blue Horizon was written by Leo Robin, Richard A. Whiting and W. Frank Harling and the first version of it appeared in the 1930 film Monte Carlo sung by Jeannette McDonald. There’s a long section of almost a minute in length before we get to the recognisable chorus. While there were several versions cut prior to the song’s appearance on Magnetic South, the only one with any kind of country slant came from Frankie Laine in 1962. Frankie could be broadly described as being from the ‘western’ side of the country & western genre though he wasn’t a singing cowboy and his background was Italy rather than out on the range (or more likely, Hollywood).

16. When I was but a lad (and before rock and roll had penetrated into the UK) I used to get taken to a local theatre to see what was effectively an end-of-the-pier summer show, only there was no pier and Newquay had yet to invent the slogan “finest coastline and beaches in Europe” let alone become Surfers Paradise UK. End of ad break. Anyway I do recall the team often closing with Beyond The Blue Horizon – note the lines “Goodbye to things that bore me / Joy is waiting for me” in the first verse – but if my memory serves me well, the whole show with this performance included, reeked of a much earlier era than the very early fifties when I would have seen the thing. I only mention this to reinforce my brain equating elegance with the number. Top hats, long dresses, dance steps, the lot.

17. Al Casey started out largely as a rock ‘n’ roll/rockabilly guitarist but he widened his range and became a major part of the L.A. team of session musicians known under the name of the Wrecking Crew. He’ll forever be remembered – by yours truly anyway – as the man who came up with and played that guitar riff on Sanford Clark’s The Fool (produced by Lee Hazlewood) in 1956. In addition, during the period 1955 to 1960, Al worked as a member of Duane Eddy’s Rebels providing bass, piano and rhythm guitar support. He wrote Duane’s Ramrod and co-wrote Forty Miles Of Bad Road. In the early sixties a number of records were issued with Al as front man and he achieved several lowish chart placings.

18. Propinquity = The state of being close to someone, proximity also Close kinship (source: Oxford Living Dictionaries)

19. If one was to judge by the Wiki entry on Michael Martin Murphey then the gentleman is a major figure on the US music scene though he’s hardly known at all in the UK. There are several clips of the band he featured in with Boomer Castleman, the Lewis and Clarke Expedition, on YouTube. This is one of the better ones in my view.

Due to the length and depth of the feature, I’m not attempting to précis but would direct the reader at that same Wiki article. However, I would note the following (which just happens to be the way I first came across the Murphey name):

In his 1998 double CD Step Inside This House which was dedicated to Texan songwriters, Lyle Lovett recorded the song West Texas Highway which was written by Boomer Castleman and Michael Martin Murphey. This is the Lovett version.

20. Johnny Meeks replaced the more celebrated Cliff Gallup as lead guitar in Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps in 1957. When the Blue Caps were disbanded he worked with instrumental group, the Champs, famed for the single Tequila and then did his two year stint in the US Army. Back in civvy-land he did his six months with Michael Nesmith and subsequently joined the Strangers, backing group for Merle Haggard. Reportedly (source: Rockabilly Hall Of Fame), Johnny used to open Merle’s show with his version of Jerry Lee’s Great Balls Of Fire. Meeks also played piano in Ricky Nelson’s backing group and there’s a picture of him in the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame feature with Nelson and Lefty Frizzell.

And just to demonstrate that everything in L.A. is connected, in 1967, well after the Blue Caps days, Gene Vincent recorded an album called simply Gene Vincent for Challenge Records, a label originally founded by Gene Autry but at that time run by Dave Burgess an ex member of the Champs. Members of the Wrecking Crew were present in support including Al Casey (and Glen Campbell). Several country numbers were included in the album including Merle Haggard’s hit, I’m A Lonesome Fugitive. Merle’s album of that name had Glen D. Hardin on piano (plus James Burton, Glen Campbell and Ralph Mooney on steel).

21. Pop LPs back in the fifties and early sixties typically had 12 tracks with each track rarely exceeding three minutes in length, sometimes considerably less. Consequently, the duration of an album was usually 30 minutes or so. In the second half of the sixties two things happened: individual tracks started to break that three minute barrier with increasing frequency and more tracks were sometimes – though still only occasionally –added to albums. Compilation albums would tend to push up the number of tracks per album as the years rolled on. Examples in the seventies included the great rockabilly label trawls from back in the fifties resulting in LPs with up to 20 or even more tracks. But RCA, till well in the seventies, sternly resisted this trend. Their albums from country artists like Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings usually had no more than 11 tracks and country tracks rarely exceeded three minutes. Nesmith, it would seem, was constrained by this approach from RCA and, as his numbers grew in length, so the number of tracks per album shrunk.

22. From A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing might not have had the great Red Rhodes in the support team but it did have another cult guitarist present who had a very fluid sound even if he didn’t play the pedal steel. That man was Lonnie Mack.

23. I made mention of the numerous live albums but I should highlight The Amazing ZigZag Concert which documented aurally a concert held in London’s, or more specifically, Camden’s Roundhouse on 28th April 1974. It was held to raise funds for the rock mag ZigZag which Rolling Stone (in their feature on the event and record) graciously refer to as “… a kind of Mother Country Rolling Stone, minus the politics, with a specialist passion for San Francisco-inspired psychedelia and American country rock.” Nez along with Red Rhodes were top of the bill and occupy all of CD 5 of the box set. Other artists include John Stewart and Starry Eyed & Laughing.

24. I recorded that fact Nez had heart surgery (in late June 2018). At the time of writing I can report that he is already back on stage. The tour, which features a new First National Band called First National Band Redux (which includes his sons, Christian and Jonathan), started on 7th September 2018 in Houston, TX, and finishes at Ridgefield, CT, on 23rd September. The Houston Chronicle reviewed the show in his hometown.

25. The following were/are Texans: John Kuehne/London, Roy Orbison, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Glen D. Hardin, Sam the Sham, Terry Allen, Michael Martin Murphey, Lyle Lovett, Boomer Castleman, Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills, Waylon Jennings, Nat “King” Cole, T-Bone Walker, Kenny Rogers and Lee Hazlewood.

26. There’s been a distinct shortage of live material in this piece. It does exist but I just happened to be so enamoured with the studio cuts I went for them in preference. However to rectify the issue, here’s Nez at the 1992 Britt Festival in Jacksonville. The number featured is Some Of Shelly’s Blues, one of his songs which was on Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash and was also recorded by the Stone Poneys. The Nez version is far more relaxed, the song sounds well and truly lived-in and the set is captured on the Live At The Britt Festival album, the last to feature Red Rhodes.

 

 

Orville “Red” Rhodes (1930–1995)

 

Videoranch + Michael Nesmith info

Michael Nesmith facebook

Michael Nesmith & The First National Band fansite on Facebook

“Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff” by Michael Nesmith

Michael Nesmith biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Terry Allen, Byrds, Glen Campbell, Eric Clapton, Gene Clark, Eagles, Duane Eddy, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lyle Lovett, Lonnie Mack, Monkees, Bill Monroe, Rick Nelson, Harry Nilsson, Dolly Parton, Tex Ritter, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Gene Vincent, T-Bone Walker

TopperPost #741

10 Comments

  1. Alex Lifson
    Sep 24, 2018

    Simply put, fabulous! You’ve written the best biography about the Nez we can ever hope to read. Love “Joanne”, a timeless ballad. He has to be in the top ten most fascinating people to come out of the 60’s. Also as always, your very thorough detail that you put into all your Toppermost posting. Thank you as always for being here.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Sep 25, 2018

    Dave, thanks for this great piece. Have to say I knew very little about Michael Nesmith’s music before reading this (only song I knew here was ‘The One Rose’ through the versions by Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash) but this superb introduction gives me the perfect stating point from which to discover more. Thanks again.

  3. Terry Newman
    Sep 25, 2018

    Great post, Dave. Would have to agree he should be considered up there with the likes of Gram Parsons and Gene Clark. Always had a soft spot for Standard Ranch Stash as that was the first Nez record I owned.

    • Dave Stephens
      Sep 26, 2018

      Gentlemen, thank you very much for your kind comments. I find that sometimes, if I am really keen on an artist then the words seem to flow more freely and the research is less like hard work, enjoyable even. That was certainly the case here. I hadn’t listened to some of those tracks for ages.
      Terry, I fully understand where you’re coming from re “Standard Ranch Stash”. It’s one of his albums that I don’t own but it could well be that if I’d lived with it my observations might have contained some more warmth.

  4. Steve Paine
    Sep 29, 2018

    Great article, Dave. I was unaware of Nesmith’s role in the early days of country-rock, and had always dismissed him as a lightweight performer of bubble-gum rock. You’ve opened my eyes. Thanks!

    • Dave Stephens
      Oct 2, 2018

      Steve, thanks for your comment and I’m pleased I’ve found you someone “new” to listen to. I totally empathise with your previous attitude to Nesmith. If it hadn’t been for my sniffing out potential bargains in those record shops which used to specialise in cheapo deletions I might, to this day, be unaware of his abilities.

  5. Peter Viney
    Oct 2, 2018

    I have a copy of “The Prison”. I was very interested in the idea of a book and accompanying soundtrack while you read. There are a couple of others with the same idea, whose titles escape me, but one was a crime story with two accompanying cassettes. I did try The Prison at the time, but it didn’t inspire me. I’ll dig it out and try again.

    • Dave Stephens
      Oct 8, 2018

      I did feel a little guilty that I didn’t purchase a copy of “The Prison” so that I could fully take on board the apparently immersive experience, however I thought that might have been a tad over the top as far as research was concerned. Was also reminded of Nez’s later excursions into “odd” ventures, some of which worked and some didn’t by comments in the press recently about the tech giants like Amazon, Google etc., who plough all their profits into research projects which could sometimes be termed odd, and some work and some don’t, but the overall result is positive. Nez didn’t/doesn’t have quite their money but he had the contacts and an inquisitive mind.

  6. Glenn Smith
    Oct 3, 2018

    Great effort, you’ve captured the strange whimsy that is Mike Nesmith. I swear he’s been looking at us all with a glint in his eye throughout the magical journey that is his American musical odyssey, liquid paper and all, as if to say “crazy ain’t it?” Winonah from Ranch Stash has always been a personal favourite, only Mike could open a song with “Winonah, the whiskey owns her”, there’s the history of country music in that one line. Hank Williams would have seen him as his rightful lyrical heir.
    A slight detour on this post: 1977 in Australia was the year of Rio. Peter Allen had a huge hit with I Go To Rio, with the campiest of camp videos of him at the piano, maracas, Hawaiian shirt etc, surely the inspiration for Jim Carrey in The Mask. Then…unbelievably, along comes Mike with his take on Rio, the complete antithesis of Peter’s, laid back, smooth groove..”my feet have gone loose from their moorings”…perfectly Mike Nesmith.
    Thanks Dave, top stuff.

    • Dave Stephens
      Oct 8, 2018

      Glenn, many thanks for your comments. I spotted “Mike wrote some great music (he needs his own Toppermost – I’m looking at you Glenn Smith …)” within the fine Monkees Toppermost from David Lewis so I’m guessing you’re at least as knowledgeable about Nez as I am, thus making your comments more meaningful.
      I’m ashamed to say that I’d never heard of the great Peter Allen and “I Go To Rio” but can assure you that I’ve rectified that now.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓