I’m going to be very honest with you, I kinda hate the title of this column. It sounds hipster and pretentious. Yet—I can’t think of any other way to get you “in” to what I am talking about, and frankly, the three albums in question are all amazing albums that should be celebrated as much as any landmark recordings. I’m talking about genre-defying records, albums that were ahead of their time. Albums that, as far as I’m concerned, laid the groundwork and dare I say even invented the musical genre we now call Americana.
So who is the artist I am talking about? In some circles, he’s considered—rightfully—one of the great unheralded pioneers of Country Rock, someone who opened for Graham Parsons and should be just as celebrated as Parsons’ work with The Flying Burrito Brothers. The artist in question is Michael Nesmith, and the three albums he made in the early 1970s with The First National Band. Yes, THAT Michael Nesmith, of The Monkees. Now if you’ve read my column you know that I am ride or die for The Monkees and could spend all day telling why they made some of the best albums of the 1960s.
Being “Mike of The Monkees” is the exact reason The First National Band albums weren’t really given much attention to at the time of their release—despite the first album in the trilogy, “Magnetic South,” spawning a top 30 hit, “Joanne.” But time is the test of everything, and time has shown—much in the same way it has The Monkees—that Nesmith was lightyears ahead of everyone else, making incredible records that were waiting for us to catch up to. In the last year or two, Nesmith himself has been touring with a revamped First National Band playing these songs live—much to great acclaim and from what I hear, his own personal delight that songs he thought lived in the shadow of “Last Train to Clarksville” having their own, excited fanbase.
Between 1970 and 1971, Nez and The First National Band released a trio of albums, with a “Blue, Red, and White” cover motif. They are—in order—“Magnetic South,” “Loose Salute” and “Nevada Fighter.” All of them released on RCA, where Nez was under contract till 1973. Releasing three albums of material in just a little over a year was due to many of the songs on The First National Band albums being tunes that Nesmith had written during his time with The Monkees—though they weren’t necessarily intended to be Monkees songs.
A few of the songs that would wind up on The First National Band LPs were recorded as sessions for Monkees LPs, with one of them—“Listen to the Band”—appearing on the group’s TV special “33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee” and getting released on the band’s 1969 album “The Monkees Present.” Monkees box sets and expanded editions released during the last 25 years or so have brought to light many of these early versions of songs that would wind up on the FNB albums.
The majority of the songs on the three albums that comprise The First National Band catalog were all written by Nesmith, a few songs by band member Red Rhodes appear on a couple of the LPs, as do some cover tracks, and all of side two of the last album—“Nevada Fighter”—has songs written by others, including a great cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Rainmaker.” With Nesmith leading up vocals and guitar, the other members of the FNB are Red Rhodes—a noted steel guitar player who had been used during some Monkees sessions, with John Ware on drums and John London on bass.
What blows me away about the three albums in the FNB trilogy is that they don’t sound like albums made in 1970 and 1971. There is a timeless nature to them. They have the parameters of Country, but there’s more to it than just that. That’s why I feel so much of what became Americana can be found here. It reminds me of an interview I once saw with Nesmith where he said words to the effect of “I never thought there was any difference between the kind of music Hank Williams and Chuck Berry were making.”
I suppose the reason I feel so evangelical about these albums, outside of them being all brilliant, is that Michael Nesmith has never really been given his due as a solo artist. He was one of The Monkees, public enemy number one of the music world. That “fake band that was inauthentic and designed just to milk the populous for money.” Only the truth is the story is far more nuanced and complicated than that—something I’ve written about before and I”ll leave for you to research.
I don’t want to keep bringing my beloved Monkees into this story, as this is about Nez’s solo work, but the truth is that’s why it’s taken so long for these amazing songs and albums to have their due. That time is now. All three albums were reissued recently in expanded editions, and on beautiful color vinyl pressings by Sundazed Records—the quality on these new vinyl editions is top notch. I love these records so much that, despite owning original RCA pressings of “Magnetic South” and “Nevada Fighter,” I went and bought the Sundazed reissues too.
We live in an area that celebrates Country and Roots music, and here are three albums that I feel should be studied and mentioned right up there with The Byrds seminal album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” The albums are streaming too, they’re easy to find and listen to. I’ll say it again as I always will say as long as there is breath in my body, Michael Nesmith is the great, unheralded pioneer of Country Rock/Americana. As I’ve said to some friends privately, if you like Jason Isabel, you’re gonna dig The First National Band.
“But Andy, I’m still skeptical of these claims of yours, I don’t want to explore the whole albums. What songs should I hear?” OK, fine. Here’s a list of two songs off each record I hope you’ll at least give a listen to: “Calico Girlfriend,” “The Crippled Lion,” “Silver Moon,” “Thanx for The Ride,” “Grand Ennui,” and “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care).” OK. I’ve done enough musical preaching for the week—and I’ve haven’t done much in a long time anyway. I do hope by the time we meet again in these pages, you’ll have given these albums a spin. See you next week.