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Off the Beaten Tracks: Michael Nesmith, country heir

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THE description ‘laid back’ could have been invented for Michael Nesmith. He turned up to an audition for the Monkees on his motorbike carrying his dirty laundry in a sack and wearing a woolly hat which kept his hair out of his eyes while riding. The producers decided he was so cool that he got the job.

His solo records were gentle and relaxing, as were the albums he produced including Valley Hi by Ian Matthews and Bert Jansch’s classic LA Turnaround.

Then again, it must be fairly hard to get uptight when your mum is an entrepreneur who will one day leave you more than 25million dollars.

Robert Michael Nesmith, an only child, was born in Houston, Texas, on December 30, 1942. His parents, Warren and Bette, divorced when he was four. Mrs Nesmith moved with her son to Dallas to be near her family. She took various office jobs and became executive secretary at Texas Bank and Trust. Always a dodgy typist, to cover her mistakes she experimented with white water-based paint and in the mid-1950s invented a correction fluid known as Liquid Paper, which she smuggled into the office in nail-polish bottles and sold to colleagues. For years she produced it at home in the kitchen and at first made little headway but as it gained popularity she built up the company to such an extent that in 1979 it was sold to Gillette for $48million. She died soon afterwards aged 56 and half her fortune went to her son with charities receiving the rest.

Michael had been a keen musician in high school but before he could graduate signed up in 1960 for the US Air Force. He trained as a mechanic and was honourably discharged after two years. Having been given a guitar by his mother and enrolled at San Antonio College, he formed a songwriting partnership with a friend, John Kuehne. Nesmith’s prowess with the guitar rapidly improved and he gained work as a session player for Stax Records. He moved to Los Angeles with Kuehne, who changed his name to John London, and began singing in folk clubs. He released a few unsuccessful singles under the name Michael Blessing and signed a publishing deal for his songs. In 1965, he saw an ad in a music trade paper about auditions for a TV show about ‘four insane boys’ in a struggling pop band. He was one of 400 hopefuls who turned up and made the shortlist of 14, which after screen tests was whittled down to him, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones. The idea was that they would be a sort of American Beatles. Dolenz, who had been a child star in the series Circus Boy, would be the madcap John Lennon type. Nesmith would be the serious, deadpan George Harrison, Tork the geeky equivalent of Ringo Starr and Manchester-born Jones, a former jockey and Coronation Street actor, the pretty boy Paul McCartney.

In 1967 and 1968 there were two series of The Monkees on NBC comprising a total of 58 episodes. Producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider created a chaotic mix of improvisation, comedy and music which was pretty ambitious for its day. Here’s an example. 

It was a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic and the group were soon topping the charts with hits including I’m a Believer, although they provided only the vocals with top session men doing the backing.

As the end of the second series drew near, it was clear that the programme was beginning to repeat itself and NBC pulled the plug, allowing the boys to write their own finale which featured a guest appearance by Tim Buckley singing the brilliant Song to the Siren from his forthcoming album Starsailor. They carried on recording together, however, and made a disastrous zany movie named Head plus an album, More of the Monkees, which Nesmith described as ‘probably the worst record in the history of the world’. By now deeply into country music, he hated the group’s bubblegum pop and manufactured image. In 1968 he released a side project, a solo country album called The Wichita Train Whistle Sings.

In 1969 he formed Michael Nesmith and the First National Band, with himself on guitar and vocals, John London on bass, their friend John Ware on drums and O J ‘Red’ Rhodes on pedal steel.

By the time Nesmith left the Monkees in 1970, buying himself out of his contract at a cost of $450,000 or almost three million dollars in today’s money, he was an established songwriter. Frankie Laine had recorded his song Pretty Little PrincessMary, Mary was made by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band while Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys released Different Drum and Some of Shelly’s Blues. The latter track and Propinquity appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy.

At one of the First National Band’s early gigs they played alongside Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, who were a little bemused to be sharing a stage with a former Monkee. The strength of the music, however, won them over and Nesmith was soon taken seriously.

His first album under his own name, Magnetic South, was released in June 1970 and contains several songs, including Calico Girlfriend, which were actually written for the Monkees.

Not so Joanne, which was released as a single and almost breached the US Top 20, reaching number four in Canada. My favourite track is The Keys to the Car, which sounds like a classic country oldie but is a Nesmith original.

The album ends in dreamy fashion with a lengthy cover version of the 1930 song Beyond The Blue Horizon, first performed by Jeanette MacDonald in the film Monte CarloMagnetic South, on the cover of which Nesmith cites as his heroes Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmie Rodgers, is something of a landmark in country rock and Nesmith’s soaring, yodelling vocals are a revelation.

By November that year he had another album in the shops, Loose Salute. This includes another successful single, Silver Moon, an excellent version of the Patsy Cline hit I Fall to Pieces, a remake of the Monkees single Listen to the Band and another vocal tour de force in Lady of the Valley

A third LP, Nevada Fighter, was almost in the can when Ware and London quit the band for reasons unspecified and the last couple of tracks, Here I Am and Only Bound, were completed in early 1971 with the legendary guitarist James Burton, Ron Tutt and Joe Osborn. All had played with The Monkees and Burton, of course, backed Elvis Presley. My favourite song is the aforementioned Propinquity, which had also been recorded by The Monkees in 1968, but Here I Am runs it close.

There are also four interesting cover versions – Texas Morning by Mike Murphy and Boomer Castleman, Bob Nolan’s Tumbling Tumbleweeds, Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock’s I Looked Away and Harry Nilsson’s Rainmaker

Luckily, I was able to snap up these poor-selling early Nesmith albums for a quid apiece as ‘cutouts’. In those days, when record companies deleted titles from their catalogue, unsold copies had a chunk cut out of the edge of their sleeve – why? – and were disposed of at a bargain price, usually by mail order.

Tantamount To Treason was released in 1972 by Nesmith and the Second National Band, with only Red Rhodes remaining from the First. It features synthesisers and phased guitars, and went down like a lead balloon with critics and public, although some fans still praise its trippy atmosphere. You Are My One is among four Nesmith originals but my favourites are two covers – Bonaparte’s Retreat and She Thinks I Still Care

By contrast later that year came a much simpler affair, the ruefully titled And the Hits Just Keep On Comin’, featuring only Nesmith and Rhodes. This is an absolute cracker; in my view the man’s best LP by far. Ten all-original songs begin with Tomorrow and MeThe Upside of GoodbyeLady Love, Listening and Two Different Roads. The pace drops with the earnest The Candidate  but hereon in is plain sailing. Four classics in a row – Different Drum, Harmony Constant, Keep On and Roll with the Flow.

Nesmith’s explanation for using only Rhodes as back-up is that the rest of the band were ‘fed up’ with their boss ‘and the only one I was still talking to was Red. It wasn’t impelled by an artistic vision; we simply fell into it because there were no options. As I look back on it though, it was inspired. Red was playing better and more inventively than ever and I had written most of the songs in a week so they were all of one piece’. He adds that it took him years to come to appreciate the album, but ‘now I think it’s a jewel’.

So how could he follow that?

Answer: with 1973’s Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash, whose cover features a bearded, cowboy-hatted Nesmith winking his right eye beside which in tiny letters reads the legend: BUY THIS RECORD. Back with a full band, he gets off to a nifty start with Continuing, still featuring lashings of Red, and then comes the wonderful Some of Shelly’s Blues, perhaps Michael’s greatest song, recorded by him for the first time five years after he wrote it. This is followed by Release then Winonah, a rare example of a Nesmith collaboration, with Linda Hargrove and James Miner. Born To Love You is a sweet cover of the Cindy Walker song and then comes a two-part track, The Back Porch and a Fruit Jar Full of Iced Tea. This comprises the traditional The FFV and Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen, the playing on which is stellar. Nesmith says this was recorded in one take. ‘Hard to do when seven guys are in the room, but not when all are of one mind.’ Concluding is Billy Hill’s Prairie Lullaby

This was Nesmith’s sixth and last album for RCA Records, and more or less marked the end of his fascination with country music. In 1974, on his own Pacific Arts label, came The Prison, a box containing an LP plus a novella meant to be read while listening to the music. I can’t remember how much it cost but it was a large chunk out of a then local newspaper reporter’s meagre weekly wage. Was it worth it? Frankly, no. I wouldn’t go as far as one critic who called it ghastly, but pretentious it certainly is.

Nesmith redeemed himself somewhat with 1977’s catchily titled From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing, including his British hit single Rio, while 1979’s Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma produced a couple of radio hits with Cruisin’ and Factions, but by then I had lost interest. In the 1980s he overcame his hatred of the Monkees and toured with them. In 1996 they even made another album, Justus. Following the death of Davy Jones in 2012 Nesmith joined the remaining two for a tour in 2016 after which he announced he was retiring from the group. In 2018, with Peter Tork terminally ill from cancer, he and Dolenz performed as The Mike and Micky Show, although business had to be suspended when Nesmith needed a quadruple heart bypass. Last year he revisited the And The Hits . . . album on tour with pedal steel player Pete Finney replacing Red Rhodes, who died in 1995.

Which reminds me of Nez’s sleeve notes for a CD reissue of And The Hits . . . and Ranch Stash in 2000. ‘Like children’, he wrote, ‘these albums each hold their own special place in my heart.’ I’ll second that. 

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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