Michael Nesmith, best known as the lead guitarist and resident genius songwriter of The Monkees and later for his trailblazing recordings with The First National Band in the emerging country rock genre, was concluding his stint at San Antonio College on that tragic November afternoon 50 years ago when America experienced the senseless assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Actually raised in Dallas, Nesmith found college life to be generally non-stimulating, except those opportunities when he could write poetry or busk as a burgeoning folk singer.
Incredulously, Nesmith toured substantially in the early 2010s, especially noteworthy given the fact that fans can count on their fingers the number of times the venerable songwriter has toured in the past 30-odd years and still have a few remaining digits.
Cosmically dubbed “Movies of the Mind”, a 19-city late fall 2013 tour was Nesmith’s most ambitious solo undertaking. Cherry-picking highlights from the artist’s post-Monkees repertoire, each date was recorded for archival purposes. A limited edition live album, the songwriter’s first since 1991’s Live at the Britt Festival, combined the best performances from each show.
The “Listen to the Band” wordsmith graciously agreed to an exclusive email interview debuting below. Although limited to eight questions by Nesmith’s publicity team [he kindly answered an addendum], the vocalist’s back-pages covered are well worth the ride.
Roll with the flow as Nesmith discusses his surprising kinship with Elvis Presley, musical influences, admiration for legendary guitarist James Burton, establishing a solo career with RCA amidst the ruin of The Monkees’ fame monster, juicy anecdotes behind some of his compositions worthy of rediscovery, and the unimagined joy of touring again.
The Michael Nesmith Interview
Where were you when JFK was assassinated, and did any of his core beliefs resonate with you?
I was walking across the plaza of San Antonio College from the Student Union to a class in theater. I suppose his was the first glimpse of politics I took seriously but it has taken many years and twists and turns for me to get any useful sense where politics fits in the Universal Order – not to get too cosmic on you [laughs].
You have a number of interesting connections to Elvis Presley. He toured all over Texas during his early days on Sun Records. You would have been roughly 13 years old when Elvis broke nationwide in 1956. His TCB Band, featuring guitarist James Burton, pianist Glen D. Hardin, drummer Ronnie Tutt, and bassist Jerry Scheff (to a lesser extent; Scheff was present for some of the Head sessions) played on The Monkees’ records in addition to your solo material. Drummer Paul Leim, who has substituted for Tutt on the pioneering Elvis: The Concert worldwide tour, is now a member of your band. Elvis’ final producer, Felton Jarvis, signed you to RCA, coincidentally the singer’s recording label. And Elvis had a deep appreciation of country music, recording almost exclusively in the genre shortly before his death. So, did he influence you in any aspect?
Of course the Elvis connection is not lost on me — and all those you mention were very active in my songwriting and recording life as you say. Nevertheless, I was a little young to appreciate Elvis. He was a bit beyond me.
My first solid musical connection came from Bo Diddley when I saw him perform at Louann’s nightclub in Dallas. I saw him three times. That was a life changer for me. I walked in the door with Hank Williams and to a lesser degree Carl Perkins and walked out with Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed. It made for a nice stew and lasted for a long time – even to this day.
Rick Nelson also experienced early television fame, appearing alongside his family and usually singing on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He later pioneered country rock. Did you have an opportunity to meet Rick?
I did not meet Rick but it was the guitar solo on his “Hello Mary Lou” that sent me to find James Burton when I started producing for the Monkees. James was on “Papa Gene’s Blues”, my first composition to appear on a Monkees album [Author’s Note: Nesmith playfully encourages Burton, drawling “Aw, pick it, Luther” midway through the famous chicken pickin’ guitar solo. The “Luther” in question is a nod to Johnny Cash’s then-lead guitarist, Luther Perkins]. James also led me to the Wrecking Crew. I didn’t follow Rick’s work at all.
In hindsight, was RCA the best record label to launch your solo career?
It was the only option I had. By that time the Monkees were a pariah among the show business and creative community – and the Monkees fans were confused by this. My venture into my solo efforts was not well received in 1969 but I think the RCA execs thought they could market my music on the back of my Monkees celebrity in a way no other record company could.
However as time went on they actually became interested in the songwriting and Felton Jarvis and Chet Atkins took notice – but no one – not even them – from the record company got too close. They didn’t know what to make of the Monkees backlash and so they sat on the sidelines well clear of me to see how it would all shake out. I can hardly blame them. Those were rough seas.
The B-side to “Silver Moon” was “Lady of the Valley”, both ultimately included on Loose Salute in December 1970. Red Rhodes has a memorable pedal steel solo, the rhythm section is locked in tight on a Latin-influenced groove, and your multilayered vocals have a soothing, ethereal effect, particularly on the couplet: “Days, sleeping days, waves, gentle waves, join in the rhyme…” Can you recall your inspiration for the song?
“Lady of the Valley” was one of those songs that Red propelled. The sonics of his steel and the way he played it seemed to make the song appear in my head almost complete. I think I recall sitting in rehearsal one day and starting to play the song and it came out almost all in one piece.
In listening to your effective covers of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” [Nevada Fighter, May 1971] and “Prairie Lullaby” [Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash, October 1973], I am reminded of the B-western singing cowboy phenomenon of the late ‘30s thru early ‘50s, an era when the Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Tex Ritter captured the hearts of many children and adults alike. In fact, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” made its official debut in the 1935 Autry film of the same name. As a young boy growing up in Texas, did you attend Saturday matinees and possibly develop an admiration for any of the singing cowboys?
I was never very interested in singing cowboys. I didn’t understand the creative dynamic. It was more a source of puzzlement than inspiration. So I did not go to the movies or buy the outfits. Some adults would give me hats or cap pistols – but I never used them.
“Mama Rocker” contains one of your best rock ‘n’ roll vocals along with some dynamic, fuzz-drenched guitars recorded with the short-lived Second National Band. Where did you get the idea for the song?
The band was a lifeboat band when the First National Band disassembled. Mike Cohen (keyboards, Moog synthesizer) and Jack Ranelli (drums) were advanced musicians and opened some doors for me I don’t think I could have gone through otherwise.
“Mama Rocker”, the lead-off track on Tantamount to Treason [February 1972] was one of them – although I don’t know if they ever got the connection between the inspiration for that and their jazz chops.
Does “Roll with the Flow”, a tale of an individualist’s encounter with a lackluster lover who tries to convince him to build a relationship and a didactic minister who wants to convert him to Christianity, accurately reflect your life philosophy? The effective final verse, “In the final analysis it’s foolish if you resist the changes that come into your everyday life, there might be some trepidation but don’t let hesitation deprive you of hope and try to replace it with fear…”, demonstrates that the song is worthy of rediscovery. The chorus has a sing-along vibe that appears to be tailor-made for a live setting.
The last song on And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’ [August 1972], it has some of the early notions of my present thought about things – constant change has a familiar ring to all of us – but the song is not so much about that. It is more Taoist than anything, although I hate to saddle a tune like “Roll with the Flow” with such weight.
I thought it might flourish at the hands of some hard rockers but I have no clue who that might be – and the rhyme and meter don’t seem to be natural to contemporary music. The most notable aspect of the song in my life was that my Uncle Chick asked me to play it several times whenever I visited him.
In the past year you have toured significantly. Has this process had an adverse or positive effect on your writing?
Very positive in terms of making me want to do more performing – but I haven’t started “writing to the band” yet. I am comfortable with Paul Leim and Joe Chemay (bass) but Chris Scruggs (mandolin, steel guitar, six string guitar) and Boh Cooper (keyboards) are discoveries for me and I am excited by what they are teaching me.
I have more to learn before I start writing here. Just the thrill of playing the tunes I have written over 50 years with this group is about as much fun as I can stand right now – and it takes all my time. I am so glad I decided to do this. It has been an unimagined joy.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! Don’t forget to browse the 14-image slideshow accompanying this article. Entitled “Papa Nez: The RCA Victor Country Rock Years (1970-1973)”, the vintage photos place the spotlight firmly on Nesmith’s most accessible recordings, including rare single sleeves, concert stills with Red Rhodes and The First National Band, producer Felton Jarvis holding an actual monkey on his lap, and gorgeous snapshots of Elvis and Rick Nelson.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…fans will forever argue whether the Raiders or the Monkees had the best version of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” In “A Piercing ‘Mommy and Daddy’ Conversation with Monkee Micky Dolenz,” the self-taught drummer who belted out the definitive version of “Last Train to Clarksville” waxes poetic on such intriguing subjects as the origin of his sense of humor, how his mother lovingly guided his career, a surprising fondness for country music demonstrated on his solo Remember album, his first musical instrument, an inability to write prolifically, his most underrated composition, the joys and pitfalls of touring, and whether he is an Elvis fan.
To connect via social media with Jeremy Roberts, visit Twitter (@jeremylr) or Facebook.
Further Reading: Written on the very night of Davy Jones’ entirely unexpected death from a massive heart attack, “Us Without Him: Remembering Monkee Davy Jones Beyond the Hit Songs” is a detailed guide to 14 of Jones’ most essential Monkees songs. Notwithstanding, the article takes a unique approach in presenting musical contributions from the Manchester Cowboy that are relatively obscure cuts, with quite a few stemming from Jones’ own lyrical hand.
Exclusive Interview: In “For Pete’s Sake: In This Generation…,” bassist-keyboardist Peter Tork explains how relatively easy it was to learn bass, becoming the first Monkee to play on a session, meeting Beatle George Harrison, if he listens to bootlegs, why Michael Nesmith rejoined the band in 1996, the legacy of Justus, a film that had a substantial impact on his comedy leanings, perhaps his greatest vocal performance, and the perfect day.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: “Had I focused on worry or resentment every time I had a setback, or on anger toward those I perceived were responsible for my woes, it seems clear to me now that I would have only gotten better at worry, resentment, and anger.” In a hybrid interview-review conducted with Bobby Hart, the songwriter examines his debut memoir, Psychedelic Bubble Gum: Boyce & Hart, The Monkees, and Turning Mayhem into Miracles and partnership with the late, effervescent Tommy Boyce. Responsible for an astonishing 25 contributions to the Monkees’ songography like the iconic “Last Train to Clarksville,” “(Theme From) The Monkees,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”, “She,” “Words”, and “Valleri,” Boyce and Hart’s Monkees collaboration lit a chain reaction to a lucrative solo career on late ’60s pop-rock radio.
- Exclusive Interview No. 3: The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, is a charter member of L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew and has supported a who’s who list of preeminent movers and shakers in a nearly 60-year career – notably the Monkees, Elvis Presley, John Denver, the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, and Merle Haggard. Burton joined Rick Nelson in late 1957 for the classic “Stood Up” b/w “Waitin’ in School” driving rockabilly single, actually rooming with the Nelson family and ultimately forging an 11-year friendship with the handsome singer. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Nelson [“Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson”], simply click on the highlighted link.
Exclusive Interview No. 4: Trailblazer Tommy Edwards was the first deejay in Cleveland to actively promote Elvis Presley. His bold efforts ultimately broke Elvis north of the Mason-Dixon Line, virtually a racial divider during the 1950s. The deejay also had a prominent role in the highly sought after but still lost concert film, The Pied Piper of Cleveland, which documented the first time Elvis was filmed by a professional camera. To read about the King of Rock and Roll’s meteoric rise to worldwide fame, why one prominent authority controversially believes “Mystery Train” was the singer’s last honest recording, and a surprising defense of the actor’s widely panned film, Tickle Me, visit the following link: [“Recognizing the Incendiary Deejay Who Broke Elvis North of the Mason-Dixon Line”].
*****For more high-profile interviews, thought-provoking features, and stunning photography delivered straight to your inbox, CLICK HERE to receive your free subscription to Jeremy Roberts’ pop culture column. And whether you enjoyed or disliked this article, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below to join the discussion. Thank you.
© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2013. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Do not copy or paste the article text—please share the URL instead. Headlines with links are also fine. Posting any links on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.