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.
December 10, 2021 @ 8:06 pm
Godspeed on angel wings, Nez.
All of the current news tributes are short (20-30 seconds blurbs) with the focus on the Monkees’ connection and no mention of his pioneering country rock music. Thanks for the decent write-up here. Much appreciated!
December 10, 2021 @ 8:18 pm
I can’t think of very many songs that are better than “Different Drum,” “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” and “Joanne.”
Nesmith was great.
December 16, 2021 @ 8:15 pm
And I think Nesmith would have told you, as he did once, that “Joanne” was something that he didn’t expect would be a hit (it got to a highly respectable #21 on the Hot 100 in October 1970). He was as surprised by that song being a hit for him as a performer as he had been by “Different Drum” making him a true songwriting force and being the career-establishing hit for Linda.
December 10, 2021 @ 8:19 pm
What an Icon, am really sad today. Mike was a pioneer in so many ways and hope he will be playing up in heaven with his buddy Red Rhodes!
December 10, 2021 @ 8:37 pm
You’re killing me today.
What a Beautifully written tribute.
1st with your FGL, then this.
Was smiling the whole way through.
A few days ago, i think it was Jake Cutter, who wrote a funny comment about Ben & Jerry’s, Cherry Garcia. Then somebody else chimed in. Couldn’t resist, had to join in the fun. Thought of the Monkees, and luckily, there was a B & J’s ice cream flavor, to support another wise crack.
Was not expecting the last paragraph.
Your heartfelt tribute helped soften the landing.
Love, to all of his family & friends
December 10, 2021 @ 8:54 pm
Thanks for the tribute. If singing other people’s songs and lip-syncing in lighthearted ‘60’s romps kills one’s credibility we have to reassess Elvis Presley, among other hall-of-famers. Having been blessed to catch the Mike and Mickey farewell tour just weeks ago, their talent needs no disclaimer. And Mr. Nesmith did indeed create the first country-rock many of us ‘60’s kids ever heard. RIP Nez.
December 12, 2021 @ 4:11 pm
And every hip-hop, and diva these days. Not to mention most Motown acts.
December 11, 2021 @ 12:21 am
I heard it announced that he died on KEXP but for a second I thought it was Mike Ness. I almost went to his farewell tour in spring too. A couple great Nesmith tunes are on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band “Uncle Charlie” record. My favorite from that is “Propinquity” which is just beautiful. A true legend. Also Gary Scruggs died this week as well!
December 11, 2021 @ 10:12 am
And Bill Staines.
December 11, 2021 @ 12:37 am
Between guys Michael Nesmith, Ron Elliot, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens – there was no better time for country music than Los Angeles between 1965 and 1974.
Nesmith never really got the credit he deserved while he was alive, and I don’t really expect him to get it now that he has passed – but I hope articles like this open the eyes of a few people how important the guy really was.
December 11, 2021 @ 10:08 am
Don’t forget Clarence White, Gene Parsons, Gib Gilbeau and the other studio players! I love what Marty Stuart had to say about how if he could travel back in time that he would be going out to watch Clarence at the end of the day!
December 19, 2021 @ 4:13 pm
And Steve Young, yet another underrated trailblazer.
December 11, 2021 @ 12:40 am
Great article Trig, I knew you’d say something about this today. As a 61 yr. old and being a drummer, a little boy like me couldn’t help but be influenced by The Monkees in the 60’s. Even though at the time I didn’t fully understand Mike’s contributions to the band I thought he was the coolest and as I got older I understood everything he was trying to do for the band to be taken seriously. I certainly remember the single Different Drum when it came out and Mary, Mary was one of my Monkee favorites at 6 or 7 years old…lol as I had a crush on a little girl named Mary in 3rd grade. The groove, guitar lick, and beat of that song is dripping in 60’s. When I first picked up the sticks to learn to play, The Beatles, Elvis, and The Monkees (because they were on TV) made me want to be a musician. Mike was “the goods” and today I’m very sad.
December 11, 2021 @ 2:12 am
I saw him in London years ago with Red Rhodes. He told us he’d just been given his first gold record. He’d issued a million albums and sold one of each. Wonderful music, lovely man.
December 11, 2021 @ 5:27 am
Great article! I have always been a fan. Like others have said- he never got the credit he has truly deserved.
December 11, 2021 @ 6:28 am
The song Some of Shellys Blues also was recorded by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on the album All the Good Times. Its the first version of the song i heard.
Great write up. Fascinating stuff.
December 11, 2021 @ 8:42 am
The late 60’s californian country rock scene has been my introduction to country music and Nesmith was a crucial element of that movement. R.I.P.
December 11, 2021 @ 8:51 am
Great write up. I hadn’t heard of his passing. I was very young when the Monkees we’re big but I enjoyed the show. Though I did know some of the things mentioned, a lot I didn’t. It was great that he got that one last ride as a monkee on their tour. I can’t really think of a better way for a performer to go really. Thanks for giving him a proper send off.
December 11, 2021 @ 8:55 am
Mike was so much more than a Monkee in so many ways, he even created the very first music video, as well as writing some great songs.. RIP..
December 11, 2021 @ 9:38 am
I just discovered the Boomswagglers! Hilarious. Seriously made my morning. It’s a well thought out joke and I applaud the three of you. Very entertaining – the whole thing. And to then be a “country music critic”. Comedy gold. Boomswaggle + SCM – Kudos!
Mary full of Steam!
December 11, 2021 @ 9:45 am
Great article! Also there is something to be said about the fact that the Monkees gave Harry Nilsson one of his big breaks cutting “Cuddly Toy” song. RIP
December 11, 2021 @ 12:33 pm
Thanks for the article.
Silver moon (standing in the lonely light of the silvery moon) did quite well as a single over here in the Netherlands 10 weeks in the chart highest position #7. I still remember it because I Iiked it then and I still do. I also bought the single and still have it 🙂
December 11, 2021 @ 1:23 pm
I was wondering if you were going to post something about Nez. Thanks for doing that….highly underrated and under the radar as far as his influence. I read that he had a quadruple bypass a couple of years ago and he passed from heart failure. Nez was raised a Christian Scientist and according to those around him he took his faith seriously by not using medicine except in a life threatening situation. I may not agree with what his religious beliefs were but I do respect them.
Bigfoot is Real
December 11, 2021 @ 4:21 pm
Nez also won the the very first Grammy awarded for the Music Video category for Elephant Parts.
December 11, 2021 @ 7:30 pm
We all were all fans of Michael NessSmith& his brand of Country Music!
He was before his time…
December 11, 2021 @ 9:42 pm
Mike and the Monkees were often at odds. But there’s no denying these – my favorites:
“I Know What I Know”
“You Told Me”
“Listen To The Band”
December 12, 2021 @ 5:26 am
Trig – I’ve read he gets some credit for either creating the first music video or at least being influential in that medium. Anything in your research back that up?
December 12, 2021 @ 8:12 am
Yes, that is definitely true. I decided to talk more about his country stuff here, but he had all kinds of innovative ideas and influence on music that most folks just don’t know about. As someone else pointed out, he won the first Grammy Award for a video. I remember talking to somebody a few years back, maybe around 2012-2013, and he was involved in a format to stream concerts online. Lo and behold, that’s now a pretty regular thing.
Mike Nesmith was actually one of the very first people I ever talked about back when Saving Country Music was called “Free Hank III” and was on MySpace. Excuse the dumb voice and bad formatting (I was just starting out), but you can read it here if you want:
December 12, 2021 @ 9:45 am
One could make an argument for Ricky Nelson’s concept video for the single, “Travelin’ Man” back in 1961 that aired on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” as being a precursor to the music video.
December 12, 2021 @ 11:55 am
Something that should be said about Mike’s big songwriting credit “Different Drum” is that he wrote it in 1965, before the Monkees were even a figment of music mogul Don Kirshner’s imagination. It was the Greenbriar Boys, a Greenwich Village folk/bluegrass outfit, that initially recorded it (in 1966), and then the Stone Poneys recorded it for their second album in 1967, with Linda on lead vocals. However, their idea of copying the Greenbriar Boys’ version was nixed by producer Nik Venet for the more baroque folk-rock arrangement all of us know. For decades, Linda was very dubious about the arrangement but, as she later admitted, “Thank God they didn’t listen to me”.
And here’s something to be reminded of in terms of how influential radio station listeners were back then: Capitol, the label to which Linda and the Stone Poneys were signed, didn’t release “Different Drum” as a single until listeners of L.A.’s top AM Top 40 radio stations, KRLA and KHJ, forced their hand during October 1967. The song eventually peaked nationally at #13 on the Hot 100 at the end of January 1968, giving Mike a songwriter identity outside of what everyone thought was a “pre-Fab Four” band in the Monkees, and, of course, giving Linda the stellar career she had until her retirement in 2013. I daresay that this can NEVER happen in today’s corporate music world.
December 12, 2021 @ 3:19 pm
Thanks for a terrific article here. But…
That older article you linked to. I mean, a number of misconceptions there.
You know now that Neil Diamond didn’t write most of The Monkees’ songs (He wrote exactly four songs they recorded, one of which went unreleased for 2 or 3 decades) and the idea that the four Monkees only did vocals and never played is also false?
Nez deserves tons of credit for writing a lot great Monkees songs, and playing guitar (And keyboards) on a number of their recordings (Not even remotely country, but check out the trippy “Writing Wrongs” that he played most of the instruments on). He also produced a number of early sessions for the group, even before he led the palace revolt to allow him and the other guys to take control of, and play on, their records.
Anyhow, Nez was a true renaissance man. Even with on the earliest Monkees records where he had little to no control, he’d written songs that were merging country with rock before almost anyone, and he was bringing it to young listeners who’d never heard anything like it.
RIP, Papa Nez. Take your place in the stars, you Cosmic Cowboy.
December 12, 2021 @ 4:53 pm
Well, I warned you not to expect much. That older “article” wasn’t what I would consider an article. It was a post on MySpace made before Saving Country Music even existed that was migrated over. I don’t think I mean to say that Neil Diamond wrote most of their songs, but many of their hits. “I’m a Believer” is one of their signature songs.
December 13, 2021 @ 9:33 am
Mike Nesmith’s songwriting is brilliant. Nothing but respect for that man and his talent. I mean, how could anyone look down on the Monkees… I guess some people just don’t understand entertainment… or humor… or good songs… or magic?
December 13, 2021 @ 1:48 pm
We lost a great musician Friday.Loved Mike in the Monkees and in his other projects. RIP
December 13, 2021 @ 2:09 pm
Thanks for the article.
There’s a good obituary of Mike Nesmith in today’s Guardian newspaper – see https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/dec/12/michael-nesmith-obituary
December 13, 2021 @ 4:25 pm
Thanks for the memorial, Trig.
It was educational, too, since I didn’t know the whole story of Michael’s professional life.
January 18, 2022 @ 5:25 pm
Lets not forget “What Am I Doing Hanging Round” co-penned by Michael Murphy w/Doug Dillard on banjo. As a kid, this recording changed my musical appreciation forever – led me to Sweetheart, Burritos, the Commander, AATW, Valley Hi, Buck, Merle, Rodney, and the list goes on and on. I’d like to know more about how “What Am I Doing” ended up on that album. RIP Nez. And a big Texas OBLIGED AMIGO!