DI takes its role as edutainers seriously, and in that spirit we’re spotlighting great albums and choice cuts from 1970-1999 to edify our readers’ musical breadth of knowledge. Each week will focus on a single year and some of the sweetmeat it produced.
“Has anybody here seen Jesus? He is gone from where I laid him down. He was always into helping people, and he asked me for a ride to town.”
Discussions of the late 1960s/early 1970s country rock movement frequently center around The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons’ brief solo output. It’s a limited view that even when expanded to include Poco, Eagles, Nitty Gritty Dirty Band and New Riders of the Purple Sage there are still usually two major notable absences: Goose Creek Symphony and the equally unheralded yet equally influential and pioneering Michael Nesmith & The First National Band.
Nesmith’s first post-Monkees band let the twang echoes of his earlier work take full flourish, the vision of a newfangled cowboy poet, the sort that had studied a few tumbling tumbleweeds while lysergically switched-on and perhaps pondered the cosmos after a freshly rolled number – the man himself once noted in a Monkees studio outtake, “That doesn’t smell like corn silk!” Joined by the core of The First National Band – O.J. “Red” Rhodes (pedal steel guitar), John London (bass) and John Ware (drums) – and supplemented by keyboardists Glen Hardin and Earl P. Ball, Nesmith delivered two stunning cross-pollinations just a few months apart in 1970 with this appealing mixture of tight, talented and loose-limbed players.
Magnetic South arrived in July and saunters in with samba-Western swing hybrid “Calico Girlfriend,” as warm an invitation as one could want, and then proceeds to wander in a most organic way, Nesmith’s voice revealed without having to compete with the Monkees machinery, a kissing cousin to Buck Owens and the Grateful Dead, hip but also grandly hick, a philosopher in scuffed up boots with a top-flight bunch of shit-pickers at this back. The title loosely references the wandering point on Earth’s Southern Hemisphere but probably more likely directs listeners to the American South and its rich musical heritage as interpreted by this California contingent. With a personalized rag from Red Rhodes [Dirty Impound’s All-Time Fave-O-Rite Pedal Steel Player], a swoony ballad (“Joanne”), a swell cover of a 1930s hit (“Beyond The Blue Horizon,” covered to country-pop success four years later by Lou Christie), and more, Magnetic South is what one calls an auspicious debut.
Loose Salute followed in November with the band’s collective confidence and personality more to the fore in a set that lets their freak flag wave a bit more freely. While still boot scootin’ gold, their sophomore effort is subtly weirder in the best of ways and the performances shimmer and kick with authority. If there were any expectations of Monkees style pop for Nesmith’s post-TV life they were surely dashed by Loose Salute, which was very much a piece with the expanded sonic horizons that the new FM radio format offered. There’s a bit more Latinismo (“Tengo Amore”), a boffo remake of a Monkees cut (“Listen To The Band”), a country barroom classic (“I Fall To Pieces”), a hopping tell-off ditty (“Bye Bye Bye”) and more treasures still on this end-to-end charmer, every bit the equal of Parsons’ over-praised GP and Grievous Angel, which didn’t reach the same musical territory for a few more years, begging the question of who influenced who.
The First National Band only lasted one more album, 1971’s Nevada Fighter, completing their “Red, White & Blue” trilogy, and for some diehard Nesmith fans (DI included) remains perhaps the most satisfying phase of Mike’s long, varied career (particularly if one tosses in the sarcastically titled Nez/Red 1972 duo album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’). There was great swing and cosmic joy to these late 20th century twangers, which resulted in music that is that rarest of things – truly timeless.
For photos and other tidbits about this short-lived band, check out the fab First National Band Facebook Page.
A trio of selections from each album for yo’ enjoyment!