Listen to this track by one-time wool-hatted Monkee and recognized country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith. It’s “Harmony Constant”, a deep cut taken from his tongue-in-cheekily titled 1972 album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘, his fifth as a solo artist.
That title was applied in a characteristically wry manner by Nesmith, a response to his record company. They had given him a mandate to put out another album quickly after his more experimental Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1, this time preferably with a hit song or two included in there somewhere. Even if it didn’t set the charts on fire, the result was one of Nesmith’s most celebrated works as a solo artist. It also includes his version of an actual hit song he wrote for The Stone Poneys, “A Different Drum”. So in a sense, Nesmith kept his promise to his record company! Despite all that, a burgeoning number of country-rock songwriters by the early seventies would enjoy much greater chart success than Nesmith himself would, comparatively speaking.
Apart from any (ridiculous) snobbery around his association with a TV pop group, maybe this is down to Nesmith’s unconventional approach to writing country songs. In “Harmony Constant” specifically, there is a distinct contrast between how he presents an eminently hummable tune to lyrics that are high-minded, even touching on the metaphysical. There’s also a curious subtext to be found here that isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill for the standard love song, either.
Nesmith began his solo journey while The Monkees were still a going concern, overseeing his own The Wichita Train Whistle Sings project in 1968, and travelling to Nashville around the same time for sessions with local musicians there, with “Listen to the Band”, being a high profile result. If you’re going to explore country music in any serious way, that’s a good place to do it! Eventually, his independent musical explorations led to an association with RCA records and their A&R man and noted producer Felton Jarvis who had worked with Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Carl Perkins, and many others. By February of 1970, Jarvis signed Nesmith, and a solo recording career began formally after Nesmith bought his way out of his original Monkees contract.
By then, he was accompanied by The First National Band that included bassist John London, drummer John Ware, and Orville J. “Red” Rhodes on pedal steel. Nesmith and the band scored a few minor hits from there including a top thirty Billboard single in “Joanne”, a song that hit when Nesmith and the band were touring abroad and had sunk by the time they returned. Momentum wasn’t on their side. After a couple of years, it was hard to keep the band on the road at all. Before too long, only Red Rhodes would remain as a musical collaborator. By the time Nesmith recorded And The Hits …, his music became more intimate and grounded out of necessity, with Rhodes’ pedal steel serving the material as a wordlessly eloquent response to the call of Nesmith’s voice and guitar. “Harmony Constant” is one of the best examples of how successful this development was.
The track is a love song that captures a single moment of realization for the narrator, while also touching on something universal and, yes, constant at the same time for the listener. The lyrics strike a decidedly spiritual tone, and yet at the same time are rooted very much in the here and now, coming off as something of a secular hymn. As such, “Harmony Constant” reveals itself to be an extension of the songwriter’s worldview, noted even in his pre-pop star days at the start of the 1960s as being something of a seeker of the ineffable in his life, reflected in his work.
Recently on his Facebook page, Nesmith posted a memory of that time:
I had struggled along as a singer/writer and was wondering if I had made the right choice for my life — and consequently my wife, then pregnant with (son) Christian. I had returned from a weird trip playing high school assemblies across Texas — to a crooked manager who stole my money — so Phyllis was broke and starving and I was too. I went into a kind of meltdown, where everything I thought was up for grabs, and reconsideration. I was also physically sick, with what I will never know, so sick I couldn’t get out of bed. Slowly I pulled back together, and by the inspiration of Love, Phyllis for me and me for Phyllis, and a Life force beyond the veil, I lifted up enough to write, to think, and to pray. (read more)
This song touches on many of the same kinds of themes that touch on the mystery of love, bridging the gap between the material forces in one’s life, and those forces that cannot be measured; the depths of our love for another, and their love for us. It is about the hard work it takes to hold something together, while at the same time also being an acknowledgement that there’s something beyond that effort binding the pages of our lives together whether there’s “nothing apparently wrong” or even when we’re down and out; the inspiration of love of a kind that can’t be fully expressed, yet serves to sustain us all the same.
I think the element that makes this song so compelling is the sense of gratitude that purveys the whole, totally going against the grain of rock star ego. This isn’t a song that idealizes love so much as one that expresses a certain humility in the face of it. No matter what the circumstances are in our lives, it’s this that lends us the most perspective on what’s most important, and that life itself spent with those we love is something for which we should all be grateful.
Michael Nesmith and a new version of The First National Band will take to the stage at the very locale where he got his start; the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Nesmith was on the scene there as a pre-fame solo performer and one-time “hootmaster” (kind of a folk-scene version of an emcee, kids). Later in his post-Monkees period, he debuted there with the original FNB in March of 1970. On this new occasion, he will be performing many songs from his pre-Monkees career, and those cut during his solo years at RCA, too.
It’s a homecoming and a full circle for him, then.
Nesmith and band take to the stage at the Troubadour on January 25, but not before also appearing at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown (Jan 21) and The Coach House (Jan 23). A final (to date!) appearance will take place at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on January 26.
For more on Michael Nesmith, including his new book Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff, go to videoranch3d.com.