By Ken Sharp
In a career spanning five decades — his first single, “Wanderin” b/w “Well, Well” was issued in 1963 — Michael Nesmith has worn a lot of hats: Singer-songwriter, country-rock icon, actor, video pioneer, film producer, book author, philanthropist, and, of course, the proverbial “wool hat” as a member of The Monkees.
But in 2013, his loyal legion of fans are most excited by the hat he’s currently wearing, that of live performer. Many fans assumed he’d retired from live performing, but in October and November of 2012, Nesmith surprised everyone by embarking on not one but two tours, a short solo tour of the U.K. followed by a successful Monkees reunion with fellow surviving members Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork. (The band’s fourth member, Davy Jones, died unexpectedly Feb. 29, 2012, of a heart attack ).
Marking his first U.S. solo dates in 21 years, Nesmith and his new band are gearing up for a 17-city, stateside solo jaunt, which kicks off March 21, in Franklin, Tenn. As a solo artist, the 70-year-old Texas native is lauded as a country-rock pioneer. His distinctive voice powered the seminal albums “Magnetic South,” “Nevada Fighter,” “Loose Salute,” “And The Hits Just Keep on Comin’,” “From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing” and “Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma.”
From “Mary, Mary” to “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” “Different Drum” to “Propinquity,” Nesmith’s songs have been covered by a gamut of artists, including Linda Ronstadt and The Stone Poneys, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Jayhawks, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Earl Scruggs, Paul Westerberg, Frankie Laine, The Lemonheads and Run-DMC. Goldmine caught up with Nesmith to get the scoop about what prompted him to go back out on the road, what’ it’s like being viewed as a country-rock pioneer and the story behind why Tommy Tedesco’s flying Telecaster took flight during a recording session with The Wrecking Crew.
Goldmine: In 2012, we’ve seen your return to the stage both as a solo artist (with a short U.K. tour) and on a tour with The Monkees. What inspired you to play live again after a long absence?
Michael Nesmith: I found myself at loose ends, and with lots of options, late in 2010, and so I decided to go out and play live, since it had been so long, and I missed it. I mentioned this decision in a Facebook post, and offers came in that fit with the way I wanted to develop my playing, and so tours came together quickly.
GM: For those who’ll never experience the magic of a band connecting, a feeling you’ve likened as “being of one mind” with each other in a live setting, can you describe the feeling like when it all comes together?
MN: A live music performance is sui generis — I know of no other artistic effort that produces the same results with performer and audience. There are different types of live performance events, of course — plays, dance, stand-up. etc. — but the performance of music carries a unique connection between the players and the listeners. The best I can describe it is as a suspension of time, a moment that continues throughout a piece of live music that develops emotionally and holds everyone poised, rapt. Words like eternal, timeless, infinite, come close, but nothing fully describes the actual experience. Music sustains this moment in a way that is satisfying and exciting, holding everyone in the same place and time around a common feeling. It is remarkable to me that an experience like this is in such easy reach — so close and so natural.
GM: You have a new solo band — Boh Cooper on keyboards; Chris Scruggs on guitar, mandolin and pedal steel; Paul Leim on drums; and Joe Chemay on bass. What ingredient does each member contribute to the musical stew?
MN: The approach to pulling the band together was to explore the concept of each member taking over his “station,” like the elements of an orchestra. These are exceptional players and musicians, so handing each one of them the opportunity to control all the bass elements or all the treble elements or all the rhythm elements was new for them but it allowed them to reach beyond just playing a single part. This was made possible by the new technologies and virtual instruments and so forth. When Paul tackles the rhythm section of a song he can interweave and play parts in his performance that was impossible before these new tools came along. In the hands of real musicians these virtual instruments come to life in a way that is not possible to describe in print. I find it inspiring and deep — the boundaries of a band are pushed way beyond the usual limits and each member has the opportunity to contribute things that were simply out of reach in the past.
GM: In a recent Facebook post, when speaking about your solo show, you said “I’ve got the songs built in a cinematic setting.” Can you expand on that? How do you plan to translate that to an audience?
MN: The songs live like mini-movies in my mind. This happened after they were written and as they became mature and familiar to me. In concert, I will say a few words in the intro to the songs about those settings, so the audience can share them with me.
GM: You’re in the enviable position of being graced with a large body of quality work. What’s the criteria in deciding upon what songs to include in the set? What can fans can expect from the show itself? Will the shows retain the narrative thread that was a part of your U.K. concerts?
MN: The band itself played a big part. Few people I have talked to realize what extraordinary talents “session” musicians have. They are very different from orchestra players and concert performers, and they have an ability to play music at an astonishingly high level — flawlessly and soulfully and precisely. Giving the band members their own section to control — treble section, etc., — opened up an orchestral side and a new musicality that felt very natural for certain songs. It is extraordinary to have an ensemble of players who can render songs in almost any way possible, to have such a range of choices of presentation. I chose the songs as they came to life in rehearsals, the ones that took on new aspects of expression due to the expanded capabilities of the band members. The musical palette was the broadest I have ever worked with, and certain songs blossomed in ways that were obvious and compelling. We only touched the top surface of my songwriting over the years. I will only do one Monkees song — “Papa Gene’s Blues” — as our opener. But the songs we chose are from all the years after the ’60s. The narrative will follow the songs and is an important part of the show.
GM: One of your most moving solo compositions is “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” which was covered by The Stone Poneys and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Can you share the genesis of its creation?
MN: The genesis is apparent in the lyric: the sorrow and tension of an impending collapse of a relationship that is relieved and saved by a simple observation. The songs I write may have gotten a spark from something in my life, but they tend to emerge and live as complete ideas independent of a chain of events. The emotion that surrounds one person telling another they love them is easy to feel simply by thinking about it. It doesn’t need an actual scenario to play for it to have deep meaning. There was never a real Shelley.
GM: You’re rightfully lauded as a country-rock pioneer. Back in the ’60s, seemingly around the same time, there was an explosion of incredible bands merging country and rock — groups like Buffalo Springfield, latter-day Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Dillard & Clark, and later Poco and Eagles. From your perspective, can you explain this emergence of country-rock outfits drawing from the same trough? Were you keeping close tabs on those groups? And did they inspire you as well as validate the direction your muse was taking you?
MN: The winds that were blowing moved us all along. We each had different approaches — different tacks and different sails in the wind — but we mostly headed the same direction, just because of the push. I had no notion of country rock as a possible genre, although we used the phrase among ourselves as First National Band members — Red Rhodes and John Ware and John London. This was more to frame up and focus a feeling of playing. We weren’t conscious of this being innovative. It was fun to play like that, and there was plenty to say with it, and we enjoyed listening to it, to each other. I listened to all the bands you mentioned at some point, but not until some time after the form was well under way. We were all immersed in playing it and giving it voice; we only slowly discovered each other over time. Ideas come along like this regularly that push everyone along. No one controls it; no one leads it. Certainly, no one invents it. It is the moment when the songs start to sing the singers, and not the other way round. Everyone who plays and sings knows this when it happens, and it is the most fun I can have playing music. Like flying in your dreams, effortlessly — and especially fun if you find someone up there with you. You wave and smile and acknowledge the forces at work.
GM: From 1968’s “The Wichita Train Whistle Sings” through “Tropical Campfires,” the late, great, pedal-steel player Red Rhodes played a major role in your solo recordings and live performances. In 1992, I was lucky enough to see a performance at the Lone Star Cafe in NYC and was able to experience first-hand his inestimable musical gifts. Tell us how you came to work with Red and describe what he brought to your musical palette over the course of your career.
MN: The drummer for the First National Band — John Ware — asked me who I would like in the band, and I said Red Rhodes. Red was band leading the house band at The Palomino, a country-western club in the L.A. valley. John introduced us, and we started playing and talking and exploring. I recognized quickly what an extraordinary musician Red was. He had a touch and way of playing that was all his own, but steeped in tradition. He did not have a lot of formal training, but he had hours and hours of playing time at his instrument. The pedal steel is an odd duck — more like the spotted owl of stringed instruments, are and beautiful and seldom heard in the way that exploits its range. Red had a knack for understanding what sides of the traditional boundaries of the instrument could be pushed and explored. He developed one technique after another to add to the beauty of the instrument, and in so doing, opened the songs and the music in ways I never expected. He was always willing to take a risk to see what he might be able to play — and that risk opened many doors, all on the First National Band records and throughout the years we played together.
GM: Speaking of “The Wichita Train Whistle Sings,” it’s your first solo album, and one of your most unusual solo albums. You neither sing nor play on the record but enlisted the services of the famous session players known as The Wrecking Crew. What’s the background behind that record? I understand things got out of hand with session player Tommy Tedesco and a flying Telecaster. What’s the story?
MN: I was in the jaws of the TV sound machine, where music was called “cues” and “scores,” and the players were held very strictly to tempos and melodies and arrangements, so the music would “fit to picture.” Into this merry band of studio players, I decided to introduce my songs and see how, and if, they could be arranged. It turns out the answers were “not very well” and “no” — but it made for some fun times playing and making music. The only session of “The Wichita Train Whistle Sings” was over a weekend and I had it catered — with an open bar. By the time the day’s end came around, everyone was so drunk they could hardly play. I had not anticipated that. By the time Tommy threw his guitar over everyone’s head and out into the middle of the studio, everyone was well into their cups. I was asking them to play things that were so far outside the norm of “scoring” dates that they were giddy and barely able to hang on to their usual professionalism — they were a good bunch. Tommy tossed his guitar at the end of a song — can’t remember which one — and I left the sound of it crashing on the record as the place exploded in laughter. Great fun. I went back years later and remixed it all and re-ordered the songs so the listener can tell just how hammered everyone gets as the album progresses. But it still makes a strange record — quirky and without much of a point of view. But, as I say, a good time was had by all.
GM: In late 2012 — to the joy and surprise of Monkees fans — you embarked on a reunion tour with Micky and Peter. What prompted you to take part in the shows and share what was it like for you to briefly step back into the role “Monkee Mike” and revisit those songs–a good portion of which were written by you. Also, were there any Monkees songs you particularly enjoyed revisiting?
MN: Monkees fans have always been extremely affectionate. They are a joy to perform for, and I particularly enjoyed channeling “Monkee Mike.” It was a lot of fun when I was a kid —and it has its charm for me even now. The four of us were discussing going out and playing when David died. That was a real surprise — very unexpected — and it seemed that if we were ever going to do it, we should do it now. Each of us had his own agenda with the tour, I think, but mine was to give the fans another pass at their Monkees — which for many was a big part of their childhood — and to perform the songs. I enjoyed the songs from “Head” and really enjoyed playing “Circle Sky” again.
GM: A highlight of those shows was your performance of “Tapioca Tundra,” which was also a song you performed on your 2012 solo U.K. tour. It’s a beautifully wacky song. What inspired it, and what led you to play this one live?
MN: It was one of those “deep cuts” from a later album and had grown in approval and acceptance over the years, until the time when we decided to go on tour, and it had become one of the most requested songs for us to do. The song itself is about the moment when the performer realizes that the songs he/she sings belong to the people — the fans and the crowds — that love the song, and the performer is only there in service to that relationship. “It cannot be a part of me — for now its part of you.”
GM: As a songwriter, what’s the first good song you wrote —something that was less reflective of your influences and carried more of your own personal stamp?
MN: “Propinquity” and “Papa Gene’s Blues” were both early songs for me and had a structure that lingers to this day in my songwriting.
GM: As a lyricist, you’re a unique and gifted storyteller. Who are the lyricists who left the biggest mark on you?
MN: Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer.
GM: In 2013, what’s Michael Nesmith listening to these days? Who’s capturing your ear?
MN: I particularly like Mumford and Sons. I am a fan of the way they have expanded the folk form. The banjo has always been overlooked as an emotional instrument, and they do a good job of integrating it. I am more interested these days in remixes and deejays and mash-ups. I very much like the electronic and mantra-like music, especially when it becomes orchestral. I like the usual pop stuff, as well. Pink is a favorite, just because of the attitude and the way she sings. I think Bruno Mars has real talent. And I like the college bands, like Flaming Lips and Fleet Foxes, although I think they will not like to be called college bands. Music is well integrated into visuals for me now, and I listen closely to sound tracks. I enjoyed the soundtrack to “Hugo.” My continuing loves are (Ennio) Morricone, Nino Rota, and (Henry) Mancini. The ’50s were the golden age of the soundtrack orchestra for me.
GM: Pick a few lesser-known songs from your solo catalog that you’d like people to discover or rediscover. What would you choose, and why?
MN: The songs from “The Prison” are especially close to me. I wrote a short story to be read while the music played, and that may have been a mistake. I think the music by itself has a lovely and well-appreciated long life ahead of it. I may not be around for that, but I believe it deserves it. I find it truly beautiful.
GM: Lastly, fill us in: Have you been writing new songs, and do you have plans for a new studio record? Can you describe the vibe/direction of the songs?
MN: I am writing away. I am recording, as well. I have never stopped writing songs. I discovered years ago that I was writing my own life — the songs came true. Now that I am in the end game, I am focusing in on those ideas that mean a lot to me: love and lasting treasures of the heart.