The late Michael Nesmith loved returning to the Monkees and the foursome’s hit catalog in recent years as a celebration of his friendship with Mickey Dolenz. But during his tenure with the Monkees in their NBC television days, Nesmith was the sole member vocal in his disgust with their label, Colgems’ employment of session musicians on the band’s recordings as well as its emphasis on outside songwriters such as Neil Diamond, David Gates, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
Lyrically, Nesmith was equally sophisticated. Gloriously abstract yet soulfully succinct, Nesmith never wasted an elegant word while gorging himself on his love of language and its occasional dual meanings.
Nesmith was not only an ace guitarist influenced by the kings of Bakersfield, Buck Owens and Don Rich, but a songwriter whose melodies were ripe with the cosmopolitan country tones of the Texas where he was born and raised. His best songs – whether for the Monkees, Linda Ronstadt or through his lengthy solo career – often benefitted from a twang and a tang that would greatly influence latter-day Americana, C&W-inspired rockers and alt-country acts who followed in his wake.
“Papa Gene’s Blues” – The Monkees (1966)
The woolen-hatted singer with the lazy, lovely Texan drawl started his time as a Monkee powerfully and playfully with this quick-picked country number. We’re not sure who “Papa Gene” was (Mike’s dad’s name was Warren), but, Nesmith immediately established himself on this first Monkees album as a potent melody writer and lyricist with the memorable “I love you and I know you love me,” chorus. Fast fact: Nesmith also got a writing credit with Goffin and King on “Sweet Young Thing” from that same debut album.
“Mary Mary” – The Butterfield Blues Band; “Mary Mary” – The Monkees (1967)
Though eventually becoming the sampled hook for one of Run DMC’s cleverest raps, Nesmith’s slow, stammering blues was cut first by Paul Butterfield’s band of renown with supple harmonica breaks, before the Monkees turned the lover’s plea into dramatic psychedelic pop with Mickey Dolenz as its vocalist. When it came to the Monkees, Nesmith didn’t pen many songs he didn’t sing, so this is a cool rarity.
“You Just May Be the One” – The Monkees (1967)
Funny that this ringing folk pop and harmony-driven number sounds so much like a Crosby Stills & Nash track. Stephen Stills notoriously tried out for a role as a Monkee, only to lose to Peter Tork due to Stills’ crooked teeth. Another hardcore catchy chorus for Nesmith.
“Different Drum” – The Stone Poneys (1967)
Eventually famous for introducing Linda Ronstadt to the Top 40 pop charts, the lilting chamber-pop track is most memorable for its “I ain’t sayin’ / You ain’t pretty / All I’m sayin’s / I’m not ready” refrain – one, when sung by a solo Nesmith, turned into something talky and curt.
“What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” – The Monkees (1967)
This one’s a ringer. Though sung by Nesmith with just a bit of tongue in his lonely cheek, this sprightly song was actually penned by tunesmiths Michael Martin Murphey (eventually famous for the sappy “Wildfire”) and Owen Castleman. What Nesmith-penned track does appear on 1967’s “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.” album is the drone-psychedelic “Daily Nightly,” an oozy “Revolver”-like cut sung slowwwwwwwwwly by Dolenz.
“Tapioca Tundra” – The Monkees (1968)
Starting and ending as trippy pop with its singer counting and moaning, Nesmith’s “Tundra” takes a turn into Byrds-y Rickenbacker rock with a Mexicali cowbell-filled vibe. Oddly enough, Nesmith continued performing this through the 2000s.
“Circle Sky” – The Monkees (1968)
For the quartet’s first and last psychedelic cinematic gasp, “Head,” Nesmith penned a fleeting fast rocker with a killer bridge, bold verses that act like choruses and a skiffle rhythm that, when played later in his life on stage, got pumped up to adrenaline-filled rockabilly soul.
“Joanne” – Michael Nesmith & The First National Band (1970)
Now an ex-Monkee, Nesmith sailed full bore into country with his Texan drawl dripping across the memorable meld line of this brushed denim ballad. Plus, that yodel.
“Hollywood” – Michael Nesmith & The First National Band (1970)
Eventually appearing on the Monkees’ rarities “Missing Links” album, the dramatic space country number starts quietly before erupting into a fast-paced honky-tonk affair (and back again) with Nesmith ruminating, philosophically, “Now I will go to some place that I know where things don’t start just to end.”
“Some of Shelly’s Blues” – Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1970)
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band sped up the pulse and pumped up the volume on its banjos and harmonica for this blissful Nesmith track.
“Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)” – Michael Nesmith & The First National Band (1971)
Just a simple gorgeous ballad sung by Nesmith, and nestled by the sleepiest of yawning pedal steel guitars from Red Rhodes.
“Harmony Constant” – Michael Nesmith (1972)
Together with Rhodes alone, Nesmith learns the meaning of true sparely produced country and how to maintain a haunting vibe through simplicity.
“Dance Between the Raindrops” – Michael Nesmith (1974)
Taken from “The Prison – A Book with a Soundtrack” – a concept album, and the first of a trilogy that ended with the equally bracing “The Ocean” in 2015 — this finds Nesmith embracing theater and story-form enthusiastically and smartly.
“Rio” – Michael Nesmith (1977)
A seven-minute track that predates his foray into long-form video storytelling with 1981’s “Elephant Parts.” Nesmith here loses his drawl for a more stately vocal and a playful tropical melody that never quits.