More Than a Monkee: Mike Nesmith’s Seminal Hand in Country Rock

“They’re the Monkees of…” is a popular euphemism used throughout music to describe a band that is more manufactured than organic, making reference to the group that was once assembled by producers to commercialize off the 60’s music scene with songs, records, and a (somewhat) popular TV show that has since become a cult favorite.

But the truth has always been that Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz, and Michael Nesmith participated much more in the music of The Monkees than they’re given credit for, especially in the latter stages of the project, while many of the other popular acts of the time participated much less in their music than the public was led to believe. The Monkees and their handlers just didn’t try to hide what was happening, with professional songwriters writing most of the songs, and studio musicians composing much of the music.

This negative regard for The Monkees often overshadowed the very real, and very important contributions that guitarist, singer, and songwriter Mike Nesmith had on the confluence of country and rock in California, both as a performer, and as a benefactor as the music from the region moved away from psychedelia, and towards country roots.

Born in Houston, TX and raised in Dallas, Mike Nesmith enlisted in the Air Force and later went to college in San Antonio where he began writing and performing songs with John Kuehne, or John Landon as he was known early on. Kuehne later became sort of like the 5th Monkee as a regular contributor to the project, playing bass with the band when they began performing their own songs.

After John Kuehne and Mike Nesmith won a talent award at the San Antonio College, they decided to take the plunge and move to Los Angeles. Before Mike Nesmith’s big break with The Monkees, he wrote the song “Mary, Mary” recorded by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (and later Run DMC), and also had his songs “Different Drum” and “Some of Shelly’s Blues” recorded by Linda Ronstadt and her own seminal country rock outfit, the Stone Poneys.

Mike Nesmith landed a publishing deal and hobnobbed with many of the country-inspired rock and folk artists in L.A., including as the host of the important “Monday Night Hootenanny” at the legendary Troubadour club where he got to know a lot of the up-and-comers in the country rock scene, and they got to know him too.

Of course, all of this was overshadowed when Mike Nesmith’s mug was being broadcast on national television as the tall and lanky Monkees member in the knit toboggan. He was a heartthrob to many teens, while musicians at the time scoffed at Nesmith as just another prop holding a guitar. But as The Monkees took the criticisms of their faux performances to heart, Nesmith was one of the leaders in steering the band towards playing and composing their own stuff for better or worse, and in the hearts of a few, it won them renewed credibility.

You can’t overlook The Monkees themselves for contributions to country rock. The band’s very first hit “Last Train to Clarksville” is very much a country rock song, with the prominent signature twangy guitar riff driving the #1 single. By the time the band recorded the popular “Daydream Believer,” Mike Nesmith was playing lead guitar on many of The Monkees recordings himself. One of The Monkees’ final hits was the twangy “Listen to the Band” that was written, performed, and sung by Nesmith.

But it was what Mike Nesmith did after the Monkees dissolved that really helped set the wheels of country rock in motion, along with bands like The Byrds and the Grateful Dead who were also transitioning to the country format. In 1969, Mike Nesmith formed the First National Band with his old friend John Kuehne, along with session drummer John Ware, and the legendary steel guitar player Orville “Red” Rhodes. They never hit it as big as The Monkees or The Byrds, or later country rock bands like The Eagles that morphed out of Linda Rhonstadt’s Stone Poneys, but the First National Band did have a decent hit in the song “Joanne,” and had a major influence on the burgeoning country rock scene.

The First National Band gave way to the Second National Band with a new lineup, but the collaborations between Mike Nesmith and steel guitarist Red Rhodes lasted all the way until Red passed away in 1995. As time went on, Nesmith found an outlet for his passion for country music more in the producer’s chair. For a short period, he was put in charge of his own label called Countryside, which was a division of Elektra Records.

Countryside was an ambitious project for Nesmith. He really wanted to see the traditions of country music preserved, and artists overlooked by the mainstream championed through the label. He worked with multiple artists, including Garland Farley, Red Rhodes, some bluegrass performers, and recorded an album from Texas poet laureate Steve Fromholz that was never released. When David Geffen was put in charge of Elektra, he didn’t see enough profitability in Nesmith’s Countryside, and shuttered the imprint. Nonetheless, Countryside was one of the first stabs at an independent country label where artists remained in control of their music, and Mike Nesmith made that possible.

Later Nesmith worked with country songwriter Linda Hargrove and the two wrote Lynn Anderson’s hit song “I’ve Never Loved Anyone More.” He was also involved in other notable country projects here and there. Mike’s mother had invented the typewriter correction tool Liquid Paper. She sold it to Gillette in 1979 for $48 million, and then ended up dying just a few months later. After this, Nesmith also became a wealthy heir.

The public face of Mike Nesmith that most know was of the goofy, 12-string strumming member of the Monkees, and most certainly he formed a legacy with the band that is worth remembering. But it would be a shame for it to overshadow the other passion Mike Nesmith pursued, which was taking his country roots sowed in Texas, and using his popularity and influence through the The Monkees to try and make country music more cool throughout popular music, and later, to help prop up other artists he believed were worthy of an audience.

Mike Nesmith died Friday, December 10th at the age of 78 from natural causes.

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