Michael Nesmith Magnetic SouthHere’s a clip of former pre-fab four guitarist and country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith performing his 1970 solo tune ‘Joanne’ as taken from his critically-acclaimed, if not world-renowned Magnetic South album.

The idea to jump headlong into country music wasn’t necessarily a new idea for Nesmith, even when he was one of the Monkees.  Many of the songs he contributed to that group – “You Just May Be the One”, “Listen to the Band”, and others – gave away his love of country music pretty blatantly.  And he wasn’t the first guy to add country to a pop group’s repertoire either.  The Byrds, under the influence of Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman (who later formed the Flying Burrito Brothers), had established a precedent for country rock by recording what is, to my ears, a straight-ahead country album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  Yet, it started a number of artists down the path of rootsy, country rock.

But,  country rock wasn’t yet a radio staple when this song was recorded.  Nesmith’s  album was released before the age of the Eagles allowed rock and pop musicians to explore country forms and enjoy crossover success too.   Also, there was the stigma of the Monkees to contend with, saddled as they were with the public perception that they were just a TV band, with no real songwriting or musical talent of their own, despite the fact that this wasn’t actually the case.  In some ways, Nesmith deciding to follow a solo career by 1970, and do it while writing in a nascent genre, might have been looked upon by many as a foolhardy move.   The artistic integrity of this decision alone is admirable, but Nesmith’s exemplary songwriting talent makes it only a curiosity.  I personally think that he was just pursuing his natural interest in roots music, which I think is why he succeeds.

Mike Nesmith: my favourite Monkee, and not just because of the hat.

Nesmith seemed to have an instinct for writing interesting lyrics that reflected his times, while at the same time making his songs sound like early country classics, or even old-timey folk-tunes from the mountain.  And his arrangements are both lush, and unobtrusive at the same time, which is certainly showcased well here in this tune.  And I think that this song shows off his vocal talents too, with a high yodel that reflects a classic approach true to the genre, and augments the subject matter of the song; remembrance of a love long gone.

Mike Nesmith continued his solo career through the 1970s, taking time off in the 80s to explore filmmaking and TV production with his company Pacific Arts including the movie Elephant Parts,  which was a pop-experimental film of comedic and musical vignettes which carried on the traditions of the movie he’d made in the 60s with the Monkees, Head. Both of those films are often cited as major influences on the development of music videos during the 80s and onward.  He continues to record today, with sporadic revisits to the Monkees camp, yet still on the same path he took at the end of the 60s, when the shackles of a TV pop image were traded in for his role as proto-alt country innovator.



6 thoughts on “Former Monkees Guitarist Michael Nesmith Performs ‘Joanne’

  1. I meant to talk with you about Mike Nesmith when you were in Toronto as I’ve gotten into his Nashville Rock period quite seriously over the past year or so. Loose Salute / Magentic South / Nevada Fighter, his First National Band albums (which Nesmith considers one album even though it was released as three) are all stunning as evidenced here by “Joanne” and other songs like “Silver Moon” , “Thanx For The Ride”, “Calico Girlfriend”, “Nine Times Blue”, “Beyond the Blue Horizon” (more an aural documentary than a song) and “Texas Morning”. You can get all three as a complete set from Nesmith’s website.

    But the album that’s utterly jaw-droppingly astounding is “And The Hits Keep On Comin'”. The one aspect you don’t talk about in your piece on “Joanne” is the gorgeous pedal steel guitar by Red Rhodes (who worked with Elvis Presley and worked with Nesmith on all his ’70s albums). In the wake of the First National Band dissolving, Nesmith was contractually obligated to put out an album and did “And The Hits…” with just him and Red Rhodes. And it’s unbelievably good, particularly his version of “Different Drum” (which Nesmith originally wrote for Linda Ronstadt) and “Harmony Constant” which may be one of the most beautiful songs Nesmith ever wrote.

    I would dispute your summary of his post-1980 career. Nesmith moved more and more away from country-rock around about the time of “Rio” and Elephant Parts. His later stuff has some country sensibilities in the composition but he’s moved more and more to a synthesised sound. Listen to his last album, Rays (2006), and you’ll have to resist the urge to tell him it hasn’t been 1986 for the past twenty years or so. Plus he only reunited with the Monkees once, in 1996.

    There’s a lot of proto-country rock in his time with the Monkees post-TV series but before he left the band (between ’68-’70) when the Monkees increasingly became less of a band and more a consortium of three different artists with different sensibilities (they also produced some great, though underrated material during this time). “St. Matthew”, “Nine Times Blue” (which he does a better job with the Monkees than with the First National Band) and “Carlisle Wheeling” are all great examples of this.

  2. Hey Graeme – thanks for the extra info on the Nez; appreciated.

    I actually haven’t heard Rays, but I’ve read reviews of it which pretty much echo what you’ve said about it.

    As for the reunited Monkees point, he did reunite with them for their ’96 record Justus (which I think you own, don’t you?). But, I think he’s appeared on stage with them a couple of times too.

    Thanks again for comments!

  3. The superb Nesmith-Rhodes version of Different Drum can be found here by the way:

    I’m splitting hairs on the Monkees point. During ’96-’97 he did Justus, a TV special and some select touring (including Wembley *when I lived in Britain*. If only I had realized…). That’s more than one thing but it’s all around a single project and to date that project his only main reunion with the Monkees.

    Oh, another Nez fun fact: He was best friends with Douglas Adams.

  4. Nowadays, he has also developed a fantastic virtual reality world online, called VR3D (Videoranch – 3D) and spends a good amt of time with that. Has booked several concerts with an eclectic list of performers by now, which are shown ‘live’ from the ranch’s studio to subscription members of the Ranch periodically, as well as to those who can obtain free ‘day passes’. Looks like our man is a pioneer of yet another area, the world of virtual reality!

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