Talk From The Rock Room: December 2022

Sunday, December 4, 2022

A Rock Room Reconstruction - Michael Nesmith and Area Code 615 - The 1968 Nashville Sessions


Today in the “rock room” we undertake a reconstruction of a critical yet underrepresented player of the “Country Rock” era of the mid to late 1960’s. Michael Nesmith, singer, songwriter, renaissance man of the Monkees, attempted to bring the country music aesthetic of his upbringing into the pop world of his made for television rock and roll band. As early as the Monkees debut LP in 1966 Michael had contributed his own original music to the group, often facing consternation from the producers who were searching for “hits” written by  Brill Building composers who were kicking out songs like a sausage factory.

Toward the end of the Monkees astronomical popularity, Nez started to focus his energies on his own musical future. From May 31st through June 2nd 1968 country music pioneer, Michael Nesmith, laid down nine of his songs with pro Nashville musicians who played under the moniker “Area Code 615”.  These musicians were the best of the best and offered their abilities to a plethora of famed records and performances from the era including Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde.

Smack dab in the middle of a world wide musical maelstrom Nesmith’s extreme foresight and creativity was given the freedom to run with his muse. Following the completion of filming on the Monkees film Head, Nesmith teamed with producer Felton Jarvis (Elvis Presley) to record nine of his own compositions. The original intent was for a Monkees record in which each respective member would be represented on one side of the double record set. While the sessions took place for this Monkees next prospective LP, Nesmith used them to relieve a constipation of unique original music that had been building since his joining the Monkees.

Charlie McCoy, David Briggs, Wayne Moss, Bobby Thompson, Norbert Putnam, Felton Jarvis, Lloyd Green and Kenny Buttrey helped to make up this collaborative who was a veritable “who’s who” of country music session men. All the players would go on to have stellar careers in the field.

Nesmith had been disenchanted for a while in regards to the treatment of his compositions under the “Monkees” moniker, and had started to cultivate plans for his own music. While the Monkees had visited Nashville in late 1967 for sessions, Nesmith had a more finite vision for the May 1968 sessions. He would continue to mine his work during this era for songs for the next five or more years.

Nesmith had already recorded an instrumental album of his own compositions during a 1967 visit to Hollywood which resulted in the July 1968 album The Wichita Train Whistle Sings. Backed by the famed “Wrecking Crew” Nesmith spent $50,000 of his own money to create a proper first “solo” recording.

Inspired by his contemporaries the Beatles and Byrds, and Frank Zappa, Nesmith felt a need to express his artistic abilities outside of the confines of the “bubblegum” Monkees. Still underrepresented in music history for his cutting-edge dissemination of country rock, the lack of tragedy in Nesmith’s life must have made him uninteresting in the analysis of his contributions. Gene Clark, Gram Parsons and others, while deserving of their musical accolades are often thought of before Nesmith.

Nez had been writing country rock for years prior and now that mainstream rock artists were combining genres into new and exciting music, Nesmith felt the freedom to join the movement even though he was the one pulling the cart. Nez remembered, I could just feel this happening, that there was this thing. So, I headed off to Nashville to see if I couldn't get some of the Nashville country thing into the rock and roll or vice versa." The May/June Nashville sessions in RCA Records studio A would unknowingly become the influential lodestone for what would become the alternative country rock movement.

Most of the music recorded during Nesmith’s visit to Nashville would end up being piecemealed throughout several both solo Nesmith records and alternate Monkee releases. Some as Monkee singles, some as “First National Band” cuts and some as unreleased deep cuts.  The “rock room” has taken the liberty to collect the available recordings and collect them into a proper collection. The hope is that someday this effort is done on an official level and Michael Nesmith’s stellar and influential 1968 Nashville sessions are given a proper historical view.

It is the “rock room’s” humble opinion that if the Nashville sessions would have been released as a proper Nesmith solo LP in 1968 it would have been one of the greatest records of the country rock genre and rock albums of the era. Nesmith was authentic and came at the music from the inside. Collecting these tracks together lets us imagine the prospect of a 1968 Nesmith solo LP.

The “rock room” presents Michael Nesmith and Area Code 615 – Listen to the Band:

This Side:

Listen to the Band- Our opening track on side A was recorded on June 1, 1968 and ended up being the only Monkees A side single composed by Nesmith when released in 1969 (with later overdubs). The song was recorded in Nashville and features stratospheric pedal steel and a catchy series of chord changes that Nesmith revealed came from his song “Nine Times Blue” but played backwards. A powerful cut that Nez would recut with the First National Band in 1970. A rare Monkees live version was spotlighted on the 1969 television special 33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee. A tune of such majesty that it's title has become synonymous with its author.

Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)- One of Nez’s earliest compositions, the reading found on Missing Links Volume 3 hails from the first day of sessions on May 29, 1968 and is a superior rendition. An earlier solo demo circulates with a more up-tempo rhythm, while this version has slowed to increase its poignancy. Glittering Nesmith twelve string strums carry some of his finest vocals ever. Double tracked and harmonizing with himself, Mike’s mature grasp of the country form is stunning. In hindsight, Mike’s compositions from this era (also to be inspected on his Fall 1967 demos) are beyond his contemporaries, but unfortunately obscured by his pop culture backlisting by the hip musical experts of the time.

St. Matthew- One of Nesmith’s finest unreleased songs. First attempted during The Birds, Bees, and the Monkees sessions, Mike returned to the song on June 2, 1968. Nesmith reveled in an interview that the song was influenced by Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” and that he later understood that the track was a commentary on Dylan’s biblical representations of the Holy Ghost in his songs. The instrumentation is the perfect collaboration of rock, country, funk and feel. Over a strong arrangement of mush of chorused guitars, slick fiddles, and steady drums Nesmith’s hearty echoed wail comes down from the top of the hill, telling the tail of beautiful St. Matthew’s doings.

The Crippled Lion- The gentle clip clop of “The Crippled Lion” is an enduring Nesmith melody, sparse in its 1968 arrangement allowing the melody to focus on Nesmith’s reassuring timbre. Acoustic guitar, drums and steel delicately drift over Papa Nez’s reclining chair arrangement. The song would reappear on Nesmith’s debut solo record Magnetic South, but this particular reading (found on The Monkees Missing Links Volume Two) emits a confident magic that evades description.

That Side: 

Good Clean Fun- A song that would become the opening number of the Monkees 1969 trio LP The Monkees Present. Nesmith is his typically sardonic style turned the song into band management with the title of the song not mentioned once in the lyrics. This was after he was told by a publisher that single's needed to be "Good Clean Fun". A undistilled country number the song moves eagerly on squiggling fiddles and honky banjo.

Don’t Wait For Me- The work done on this song on May 29th, 1968 resulted in the track being officially included on the Monkees 1969 LP Instant Replay. The song, another Nez weeper, features his 12 string acoustic guitar and Lloyd Green’s mournful steel work. A highlight of Instant Replay and a definite departure from the overall sound of the record.

Some of Shelly’s Blues- A song originally released in 1968 by Linda Rondstadt and the Stone Poneys, Nez’s definitive Nashville recording from May 29th would remain unreleased until its appearance on 1990’s Missing Links Volume 2. Pleading double tracked vocals and emotional lyrical eavesdropping highlight the chilling recording. While Nez would re-record the song on 1973’s Just Your Standard Ranch Stash, there is something in the water on the Nashville 1968 recordings.

Hollywood- A song that would never see and official release by the Monkees, “Hollywood” is a shuffling country lament about leaving the glitz and glamor of the left coast behind for a more comfortable living situation. Nesmith’s swinging vocals nurture the fiddle heavy shit kicking arrangement. If this track would have been released as a single, the future Flying Burrito Brothers heads would have exploded. Nesmith would revisit the song on 1970's Magnetic South.

How Insensitive- We close our hypothetical Michael Nesmith solo record with his dramatic cover of a bossa nova standard by Antonia Carlos Jobim. Nez takes the Brazilian and makes it country with a low key rearrangement and an emotive vocal. Banjo, acoustic guitar and fiddle weave a lacy spell under Nez’s almost monotone rendition. A fitting closer, and a song that sums up our hypothetical collection from the 68' sessions.

Thankfully, Michael Nesmith was well aware of the cache of amazing music he had in his grasp in 1968. While mainstream recognition was plentiful, Nesmith’s personal musical satisfaction remained out of his grasp until he left the Monkees. Nesmith struggled with his early pop family connections for much of his life. The songs he recorded in Nashville in 1968 while alluding their confirmation as era specific examples of the country rock movement, have now been recognized due to Mike’s own career accomplishments receiving a reinspection.

When examined as a greater whole and as one-piece Nez’s prolific songwriting and musical acumen during the Nashville 1968 recordings is confirmed as revolutionary, important and endearing. All that matters is the songs, and they have thankfully been exhumed for enjoyment. For five days in May and June of 1968 Mike Nesmith’s crowning achievement in the country rock sweepstakes was recoded in a marathon of creativity. While never compiled as such, hopefully in the "rock room" we can just pretend.