Here’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.
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.