From A Yodel To The Wool Hat

Originally posted May 18, 2009

I never was much of a Monkees fan. I knew the hits, and I likely could have named the four guys, but I doubt if I could have ever matched names to pictures. Later on, after the hoopla was over and I actually was listening to Top 40, along came a song that I quite liked: “Joanne,” credited to Mike Nesmith and the First National Band. After that, I kept my ears open for anything else by Nesmith, but nothing else hit the Top 40, and I – being not very adventurous in my record shopping – pretty much forgot about Mike Nesmith (though he continued to produce records in a country-rock vein).

Jump to 2007: A rock journalist and enthusiast named Mitch Lopate discovers Echoes In The Wind and leaves a note and sends an email now and then. A friendship develops, and in emails and the occasional phone call, Mitch notes his favorites from over the long sweep of rock and all its musical relatives. Among them is Mike Nesmith. On his advice, I buy a couple of CDs and listen. Still persuading me, Mitch makes sure I have a copy of Nesmith’s 1977 album From A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing. I listen, but the magic eludes me. So I’ve asked Mitch to explain it. Here’s his response:

A music journalist has to be careful when accepting an offer to write an essay about his or her favored musician of choice. In my case, I was caught by my own trap (the term is “hoisted by one’s own petard,” and I think it was used on an early Star Trek episode with Captain Kirk). What simply happened to me is that whiteray threw the idea back in my lap and asked, “What makes Michael Nesmith more interesting than any of the other country-folk-rock musicians from the same time period in his genre?” It took a few days to let it simmer until I found an answer – or several. For one, he yodels.

No, not the pastry; the way he sings, of course. He yodels – and that clued me in to some of the Nez magic. It’s his way of carrying along the legacy and tradition of those singers who incorporated that method into their work in the country vein of musical bloodlines. Jimmie “The Singing Brakeman” Rodgers, for one – and absolutely, there’s a big hunk of Hank Williams, too. They would surely be included – it’s part of Nesmith’s heritage as a native son of the Republic of Texas; it’s that mix of refined/respectable gentleman and hell-raisin’ rascal. It’s also a mix and blend of Nashville, but it comes through other locations and fellow musicians as well. It goes as far as the Pacific Northwest region where Danny O’Keefe comes from (listen to “I’m Sober Now”) – and then you can count in Boz Scaggs down at the Muscle Shoals studio in 1969, working on “Waiting for a Train.” Nez, however, makes it a staple part of his production – and it just fits naturally, as though he knew he was born to yippee and whoop. And no, I already know how much influence folks like Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Pure Prairie League had – I mean it’s different when Nesmith plays because it’s like he was singing about himself and not some distant ideal or goal like a busted romance and how to fix it.

If you really want to hear how far back he made it clear, turn it back to the Monkees’ first album and slip on “Papa Gene’s Blues.” That James Burton-like Nashville lead guitar is, I think, where Mike’s heart has been right from the start. Follow that with “Sunny Girlfriend” from the Headquarters release, and you’ve got the next clue. Forget all that foolishness that was part of the group’s act: Michael Nesmith was always a serious musician who honored his country roots. And backing that up is the whine of a pedal steel guitar – it’s found on almost all his songs (“Mama Nantucket” is a great example – and not the kind of title I’d associate with the instrument.)

That’s another part of the man’s appeal: He had a businessman’s approach to writing songs and lyrics in an honest but earnest way that lacks any fancy gimmicks. It was his approach to acting as well; for what it matters, there was no other option with the clowning antics that made the other three Monkees seem so cute. Even the Beatles needed George Harrison to be serious at times. Nez, on his part, keeps his production basic and focused – but adds just a tad of mischief. My favorite tune is “Rio,” partially because he deliberately rearranges words and images to create a fantasy of escaping to South America for the adventure of it – and the way he plays on the title itself when a woman’s voice proclaims, “Not Reno, dummy! Rio! Rio de JIN-ero!”

See? It’s not an obvious thing; it’s more simple than all the elaborate parts. He sings and plays like a musical collection of old movie stars: he’s sort of a singing mix of the best characteristics of Cary Grant and Gary Cooper: polite, firm, and funny, and quiet when it counts. That is, quiet until he writes a song – and then he’s out for a good laugh and a good time on the town. Heck, maybe it’s that Mike Nesmith is and always has been a man who knew what he wanted and how to do it – and he lets the music do his walking and talking. Or maybe it’s just that confidence that comes from – can I say – “a home on the range”? Any way I try to pin it down, it just comes down to a man who knew what he could do and how to make it fit his needs and his music as well as his life story. Can’t argue that with a man in a wool hat.

From A Radio Engine To The Photon Wing by Mike Nesmith [1977]

Tracks
Rio
Casablanca Moonlight
More Than We Imagine
Navajo Trail
We Are Awake
Wisdom Has Its Way
Love’s First Kiss
The Other Room

Mitch adds, by way of closing:

“I enjoyed the project a whole lot because I really admired that guy. I mean, he was the only one in the group who made sense – most of the time.  Photon Wing really is a good album – when I first heard ‘Rio,’ I thought, ‘What clever writing; kind of a sensible Warren Zevon.’”

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