At The Barrier was saddened to learn of the death of Michael Nesmith – the reluctant Monkee who went on to establish his own unique brand of Country Rock.
And then there was one. After the sad news on 10 December 2021 that Michael Nesmith is no longer with us, the flag of The Monkees – the Pre-fab Four, America’s manufactured response to The Beatles – is now borne by Micky Dolenz alone.
Already an established songwriter by the time he successfully auditioned for the role of the “Quiet” Monkee in 1965, Nesmith was the most outspoken of the band members as they became increasingly frustrated with their manufactured image and their absence of artistic control. He was the first to announce his resignation from the band and the last to re-join when the other members started to undertake reunion tours during the late 1980s.
I hated them at the time – after all, they were snaffling some of the territory that had been hard-earned by my beloved Beatles, but even I have to admit, with hindsight, that The Monkees released a lot of good, honest pop tunes. After all, you can’t help but like songs like Last Train to Clarksville, I’m a Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday and Daydream Believer, if you’re being honest with yourself, can you? But, really, it’s as a solo performer that my admiration for the work of Michael Nesmith really blossoms, in particular, the pair of albums he released in the early 1970s – Tantamount to Treason and the peerless Nevada Fighter, both of which helped reshape Country Rock, give the genre the credibility it enjoys to this day and pave the way for the many variants of alt-country.
But I’ll start at the beginning. Michael was born in Houston, Texas in December 1942 to parents Warren and Bette Nesmith. His parents divorced when Michael was four years old and Michael, with his mother and her new partner relocated to Dallas. Michael’s mother worked in a number of secretarial roles and, famously, was the inventor of typewriter correction fluid in 1955 – a discovery that secured the family’s fortune. After a spell in the US Air Force, Nesmith enrolled at San Antonio College where he met his first real musical collaborator, John Kuehne. the pair performed a mixture of folk standards and Nesmith original compositions around the many folk clubs of Los Angeles, where Michael was spotted by Randy Sparks of the New Christie Minstrels, who offered him a publishing deal for his songs. Then, in the summer of 1965, along came those Monkees auditions, and Michael’s life was changed forever.
Michael’s life in The Monkees has been well documented. In his trademark wooly hat, Michael was the quiet, sensitive member of the cast and attracted a large share of the band’s pre-teen admiration. The project’s musical supervisor, Don Kirshner, decided to use the services of professional composers and musicians, limiting the band member’s involvement in their recordings mainly to provision of vocals and simple percussion, an arrangement that inevitably became public knowledge and was the cause of the loss of credibility that precipitated the band’s fall from grace. Notwithstanding this frustrating arrangement, Nesmith did contribute a number of songs to the band’s repertoire although, as his time as Monkee approached its end, he had started to withhold songs for the solo career that he was contemplating.
Michael’s initial tenure as a Monkee ended in April 1970. He didn’t rejoin his former colleagues when they reunited to celebrate their 20th anniversary in 1986, but he did participate in a number of later reunions and appeared on the band’s 50th Anniversary album, Good Times, in 2016.
Even before his solo career had got into gear, Nesmith had enjoyed considerable success with his songwriting. Frankie Laine released Nesmith’s Pretty Little Princess as a 1968 single, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band included his song Mary Mary on their seminal 1966 East-West album and, perhaps most famously, Linda Ronstadt covered his songs Some of Shelly’s Blues and Different Drum. As a solo performer, Nesmith released 13 studio albums, including the aforementioned classics and six live albums.
So let’s return to those classics. 1971’s Nevada Fighter is my favourite Michael Nesmith album. I’d never really engaged with Country Rock until I was loaned a copy of Nevada Fighter by my friend, Bolton drummer and bon-viveur, the late Phil Drake. Phil urged me to forget my Monkee preconceptions and have a good listen – I did, and I’ve never regretted doing so. Credited to Michael Nesmith and The First National Band, and featuring the likes of Red Rhodes on pedal steel, James Burton on guitar and Glen Hardin on keyboards, it’s an album of great beauty. The album’s title track, the fascinating Tumbling Tumbleweeds and the majestic Texas Morning are worth the price of the album on their own and there’s much more to enjoy as well. 1972’s Tantamount to Treason was credited to Michael Nesmith and the Second National Band – a lineup that retained Red Rhodes but featured an otherwise changed lineup, including Jose Feliciano on congas. It’s perhaps less immediately likeable than Nevada Fighter but it has some very fine moments, notably the overtly psychedelic Lazy Lady and the cover of the Lee/Duffy country standard She Thinks I Still Care. I’ve already dug both albums out, and I’ll be playing them this evening in memory of Michael.
Michael Nesmith – reluctant Monkee and country-rock pioneer: We’re so sorry to see you leave. Thanks for everything; you’ll always be remembered at At The Barrier.
Listen to Texas Morning – my favourite track from my favourite Michael Nesmith album, Nevada Fighter, here: