In advance of Michael Nesmith's string of concerts with his reconstituted First National Band, Andrew Sandoval has been sharing some wonderful essays about Michael's RCA albums through his Instagram account. They appear in full below, and be sure to click on the album covers for a look around each LP.
“Row upon row of man after man. Let this music be their music” – original liner notes to Magnetic South, 1970
In his solo debut as a recording artist, Michael Nesmith broke new ground with his new band, the First National Band. Taped at RCA’s Hollywood Studios in February 1970 directly after his departure from The Monkees, the album thematically opens Nesmith’s American trilogy of blue, red and white albums (with a trademark needle point sleeve designed by Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean). Magentic South brims with songs Nesmith stockpiled during The Monkees’ heyday. Five of the album’s songs had previously been taped in versions for The Monkees – “Calico Girlfriend,” “Nine Times Blue,” “Little Red Rider,” “The Crippled Lion,” and “Hollywood” – while “The Keys To The Car,” “Mama Nantucket,” and the Top 40 hit single, “Joanne,” reflected Nesmith’s most recent songcraft. Covers of “One Rose” and “Beyond The Blue Horizon” topped off this spirited and infectious long player.
As Nesmith reflected in the original liner notes for Magnetic South: “When Johnny Ware, now the drummer of the First National Band, first suggested I start a band my reaction was distant and a little negative. But he continued to talk and through the conversation I sensed some of the same spirit of the men who so profoundly influenced me. So, two days later Red Rhodes [pedal steel], John London [bass], Johnny and myself got together for a trial run and it all seemed to fall into place. Effortlessly and freely the music poured forth. And it was fun. Great fun. We played and sang and laughed for two weeks.” Issued in July 1970, Magnetic South was the first of two albums issued by The First National Band that year to critical accolades: "The music feels so good that you can just tell the musicians were smiling when they recorded it" - The San Diego Underground.
Michael Nesmith’s sophomore solo release, Loose Salute, continues along the country-rock road, rocking even harder in places than the First National debut, while adding a tinge of Latin rhythm. Taped from April through July of 1970, the album catches Nesmith in transition from honky-tonk hitmaker to studio born perfectionist. Side two of the album continues what was later tagged as the “saga of the Old West” that runs through the second half of all three First National Band long players.
Featuring ten songs, Nesmith revisits “Listen To The Band” and “Conversations” (originally titled “Carlisle Wheeling”) from his days in The Monkees, and explores proto-outlaw attitude on tracks like “Bye, Bye, Bye” and “Dedicated Friend.” His remarkable voice truly shines on the transcendent “Lady Of The Valley” and the unexpected “Tengo Amore.” Meanwhile, the album opens with his second hit single, “Silver Moon,” a winning and upbeat follow-up to “Joanne.” The song was actually a late addition to the album, being recorded in September specifically for the singles market. It ultimately found favor in both the Pop and Easy Listening charts.
Featuring guest musician Glen D. Hardin on “side” piano, Loose Salute is notably the first fully-produced album by Michael Nesmith since his 1968 experimental instrumental project on Dot, The Wichita Train Whistle Sings. Released in October 1970, hot on the heels of Magentic South, it drew a rave review from Rolling Stone (who called it, “…one of the hippest country rock albums in some time, certainly the most listenable”).
The final installment in Michael Nesmith’s American Trilogy, Nevada Fighter, chronicles not only our great nation, but the fragmentation of his First National Band. Recorded from August 1970 through January of 1971, the album augments the original band’s line-up (Red Rhodes, John London & John Ware – who had disbanded before release) with guest musicians such as James Burton, Ron Tutt, Joe Osborn & Glen D. Hardin (all Elvis Presley alums). Packaged in a sleeve designed by Dean Torrence, the album opens with the brooding “Grand Ennui” and revisits one of Nesmith’s earliest compositions, “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care).” This track was penned back in 1965 prior to Nesmith becoming a Monkee, and ultimately produced Nesmith’s fourth and final post-Monkees chart hit (issued in October 1971). The album’s title track, “Nevada Fighter,” was also a charting single in April 1971, reaching #70.
The album’s first side is all Nesmith originals, while side two features all cover songs that Michael made his own. These included Harry Nilsson’s “Rainmaker,” Bob Wills’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and Derek & The Dominoes’ “I Looked Away.” “Texas Morning,” a true standout, was penned by Michael Martin Murphey and Owen Castleman, who previously endowed Nesmith with the classic “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” for The Monkees (when they were in a group featuring First National Band bassist, John London, The Lewis And Clarke Expedition). Despite a rave review in Record World (“His albums, always beautifully produced, just get better and better”) and two charting 45’s, Nevada Fighter (issued in May 1971) quickly faded with no band to tour behind the release. The First National Band were no more.
“The master of reverberation, sound effects & good humor strikes again. On Volume 1 (of another trilogy?) the Second National Band brings it all together.” – Billboard review of Tantamount To Treason
Issued in Jan ‘72 (and recorded during the back half of ’71), Michael Nesmith presents The Second National Band’s only long player: Tantamount To Treason, Vol. 1. An epic production that neatly bookends its predecessor, Nevada Fighter, it once again pairs a side of Nesmith originals with a contrasting side of covers.
Nesmith is backed on this “home brew” by the ever-faithful Red Rhodes on pedal steel, the one hold over from the First National Band (other than Papa Nes himself), in addition to Johnny Meeks on bass (of Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps), Michael Cohen on keyboards (a friend from Nesmith’s pre-Monkees past), Jack Panelli on drums, and RCA labelmate Jose Feliciano on congas. The results are more joyous than the wasteland of liberty depicted in Wilson McLean’s cover art, but it is once again an ever-changing American landscape on display.
The LP opens with “Mama Rocker,” a thunderous start to an often-languid album of mood music. “You Are My One” is Nesmith’s most succinct lyric, containing only a repetition of the title over a series of mindbending changes. Richard Stekol’s “Wax Minute” is a standout (& fan favorite), the writer having also contributed to country rock innovator Rick Nelson’s Garden Party album in this era. “Talking To The Wall” recalls Nesmith solo production for Bill Chadwick (another pre-Monkees performing partner) on Dot, but reimagines the song for electric 12-string, pedal steel, and Michael Cohen’s Rhodes. Cohen himself contributes to the sound collage/song “Highway 99 with Melange.” Though the LP failed to find a home at FM radio, it has become one of Michael's best-loved cult albums. Many of the faithful have wondered what became of Volume Two? Though several more songs were taped at these sessions, including new versions of “Listen To The Band,” “Circle Sky,” and the Dave Dudley country classic, “Six Days On the Road,” there wouldn't be any seconds for the Second National Band. Indeed, Papa Nes would never have a fixed band (in name) again.
“One of the great advantages of being an artist is that I am able to utilize my craft periodically to write messages to myself. Basically that is what this album is all about.” – Michael Nesmith in the original liner notes to And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’
Seen plaintively holding a copy of Dee Brown’s 1970 book, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (which chronicled the struggle of Native Americans during frontier times) while surrounded by four women, Nesmith depicts a Felliniesque portrait of his contemporary success in the gatefold spread for And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. In reality, March 1972 found Nesmith back on the road as a performer albeit with just the accompaniment of Red Rhodes on pedal steel. Still, as his footprint got smaller, his music and message achieved real purity. The singularity and simplicity of his circumstances ultimately created one of Nesmith’s most satisfying works.
Stripped of an overarching concept, what remained was just the singer and his songs. And nowhere were they better showcased than on the ironically titled And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. Featuring ten Nesmith originals, the most he would offer on any LP until 1979’s Infinite Rider On The Big Dogma, the music served as the truest songbook album that Michael would ever issue (and his first to feature printed lyrics). The earliest numbers – “Two Different Roads” and “Different Drum” (both written pre-Monkees) – had been covered by Mary McCaslin & The Stone Poneys respectively. Songs from the back half of 1971 – “Tomorrow & Me,” “Lady Love,” “Listening,” “Harmony Constant,” and “Roll With The Flow” – could be the philosophical messages to himself, that Nesmith hints at in the liner notes. However, there is something of a tongue in cheek edge to the entire package. Papa Nes' quip, “I did it for me,” could in fact be the voice of the character he portrays on the gatefold. Certainly, the front cover view of a mansion with a rented Mercedes convertible juxtaposes the real sensitivity contained in his compositions.
A song from 1972, the eerie “Candidate,” is a political commentary in the Nixon era. While it sounds more like his work on Tantamount To Treason, it carries Hits through line of direct messaging. Ultimately, RCA pulled two newer songs – “Roll With The Flow” and “Keep On” – as a single in August 1972 to accompany the release of the album. “RCA has been really good to me,” he told John Griffin in the Forest Park Review after a March 1972 performance. “I’ve put out four, no five albums, none of which have been commercial successes and RCA has stuck with me all the time. I’m talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Nevertheless, Nesmith and his label had indeed found by year's end that the “hits” had ebbed. In July 1972 it was announced that Nesmith had formed a new union with Elektra Records to produce other artists and form his first label, Countryside. His three-year odyssey with RCA would play out on one more album in 1973.
“This is my sixth album since the whole Monkees trip went down, and I think I’m beginning to finally understand that it doesn’t make any difference at all….Once the superstructure is built, it’s very difficult to get past it into substance.” Recorded over four days in 1973, Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash marked the end of Michael’s obligations to RCA. The joy that was his escape from The Monkees in 1970 and into the First National Band dispelled into the harder realities of standing on his own in the shadow of his past. Michael’s liner notes to the album reveal that it was music, rather than logic, that kept him in the game.
Ably backed by a solid combo featuring the ever-faithful Red Rhodes, Nesmith delivers a solid, albeit succinct, eight songs as his fade out from the Big Victor. Songs like “Continuing” and “Release” speak to his ongoing efforts to transcend without significant public support. As the Stanford Daily wrote quite seriously in their review of the album, “It’s about time we forgave him for his past mistakes and crimes against rock music.” The balance of the Stash was a perfect blend of covers and Nesmith originals like “Some Of Shelley’s Blues” (which itself had been successfully covered by the Stone Poneys and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band). Cindy Walker’s “Born To Love You” (a hit for Jimmy Newman in 1968) is brought down to earth in Nesmith’s rendition (when compared with the original). While “Prairie Lullaby” revives a 1932 recording by “the singing breakman,” Jimmie Rodgers. Nes also reimagines the bluegrass legend Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” in a unique conceptual medley with “The F.F.V.” (or Fast Flying Virginian). A rare collaboration with writers Linda Hargrove and James Miner produced, “Winonah.” Michael would also write one of his most popular songs, “I’ve Never Loved Anyone,” with Linda Hargrove. Though he would never record it, it became a hit in 1975 for Lynn Anderson, reaching #14 on the Country charts. Instead, Nesmith’s focus during this period turned to producing artists for his newly minted Countryside label (his subliminal message on the cover - “BUY THIS RECORD” – notwithstanding).
Nesmith told Billboard that his goal was to “…learn to run a record company from [Elektra founder] Jac Holzman.” Michael put forth a model of making albums on Countryside with a house band (in a house provided by Elektra) for just $5k. “I’ve really become a habitué of the beer-bar and bowling alley circuit in L.A. and Orange County. And I’ve found there’s some excellent talent working these places because they can’t get jobs.” Ultimately, only two albums – Pure Country by Garland Frady & Velvet Hammer In A Cowboy Band by Red Rhodes – and six singles made it out before another kingpin, David Geffen, called time on the project post merging his Asylum label with Elektra. In 1974, Nesmith would in turn form his own independent label, Pacific Arts, and release The Prison, a book with a soundtrack.