How a half-forgotten Seventies country-rock group led by the Monkee in the green wool hat returned from oblivion
31 January 2018
Michael Nesmith couldn’t believe what he was seeing when he walked onstage at the San Bernardino, California, club Pappy & Harriet’s Palace earlier this month. It was his first gig with his early-Seventies country-rock group the First National Band since they split 46 years ago amid raging public disinterest, yet here was a capacity crowd euphorically singing along to songs drawn from a trio of albums that never went higher than Number 143 on the Billboard album chart.
“This is something I’ve dreamed about, but it’s never actually happened to me,” says Nesmith. “The audience, before I start singing each song, began singing them back to me. Usually I just get ignored and nobody plays attention to me. On this tour, audiences have actually been weeping and saying, ‘This is the greatest music that never got heard.’ It’s getting me verklempt.”
Of course, playing to rapturous audiences is nothing new to Michael Nesmith. As the Monkee in the green wool hat, he performed for throngs of shrieking teenage fans in the 1960s. In recent years, he’s periodically toured with his surviving bandmates Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork. But to him, playing with the First National Band is a wildly different experience. “It’s qualitatively different because Monkees crowds are there because of the television show,” he says. “They are remembering that time that we did this funny thing in the haunted house with the hillbillies and Mr. Schneider. This is pure, unadulterated, romantic and spiritual love that happens when great music is sung. And I never expected it. Not in my life.”
Nesmith formed the First National Band right around the time he walked away from the Monkees in 1970. Working with pedal-steel guitarist O.J. Rhodes, bassist John London and drummer John Ware, he fused country and rock in a way that had never been heard before. “It was an amalgam of something that happened in the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s,” he says, “between television and phonograph records, live bands and live studio acts.” Lead single “Joanne” reached Number 21 on the Hot 100, but the band’s debut, 1970’s Magnetic South, was a complete bomb. Follow-up efforts Loose Salute and Nevada Fighter did no better and the group split just two years after it all began.
It was a crushing experience for Nesmith, especially since he started the group with stratospheric dreams. “I wanted it to be was one of the great bands in the world playing some of the great music in the world with some of the great people in the world,” he says. “Nothing less than that. I thought, ‘Well, why can’t I play stadiums with the First National Band?'”
The agony grew worse just months after they split when Linda Ronstadt’s live backing band named themselves the Eagles and began landing massive radio hits with country-rock songs like “Take It Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” “I was heartbroken beyond speech,” says Nesmith. “I couldn’t even utter the words ‘the Eagles’ and I loved Hotel California and I love the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, all that stuff. That was right in my wheelhouse and I was agonized, Van Gogh–agonized, not to compare myself to him, but I wanted to cut something off because I was like, ‘Why is this happening?’ The Eagles now have the biggest selling album of all time and mine is sitting in the closet of a closed record company?”
Through the rest of 1970s he continued to record solo albums that were somehow even less popular than his First National Band work – including the ironically titled And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’ – but his attention gradually turned toward business ventures. (His mother invented Liquid Paper and left him a substantial fortune when she passed away in 1980.) A 1996 Monkees reunion fizzled out after a brief U.K. tour, but in 2012 he returned to the band for a series of highly successful tours. He eventually left the touring unit, but he participated in the group’s 2016 comeback album Good Times! That year, he played with the group at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles at a show that was billed as his final appearance with the band.
Around that time, urged on by his sons Christian and Jonathan along with some California-based concert promoters, he began thinking about resurrecting the First National Band. Despite selling virtually no records, the group slowly developed a passionate, cult following over the years as fans stumbled upon the old albums. A legitimate reunion was out of the question since Rhodes and London have passed away and Ware, at age 73, told Nesmith that he’s simply too old to go back on the road. That allowed Christian Nesmith – an accomplished musician in his own right, who was recently part of the Monkees’ touring band – to assemble a new lineup of the First National Band that includes bassist Jason Chesney, pedal-steel guitarist Pete Finney, drummer Christopher Allis, and vocalists Amy Spear and Circe Link. Christian Nesmith plays guitar and Jonathan Nesmith is on piano, guitar and vocals.
Completely unsure if there was an audience, they put a single show at the 500-seat Troubadour on sale and watched in amazement when it sold out in 42 minutes. “That sent a shockwave through the promotion company,” says Nesmith. Four dates were added at clubs around California, which wrapped up January 28th at the the Chapel in San Francisco with special guest Ben Gibbard. The set list focuses on songs from the three First National Band albums but also features later tunes like 1977’s “Rio” along with “Different Drum,” a tune Nesmith wrote right before he joined the Monkees in 1965 that Linda Ronstadt turned into a big hit. There are no firm plans for other shows, but Nesmith says they are seriously looking into playing at least a few more gigs in markets outside California sometime later this year.
The only Monkees song in the First National Band repertoire is “Papa Gene’s Blues,” but that doesn’t mean Nesmith has completely turned his back on his original band. He’s deep into talks with promoters about a summer tour where he’d share the stage with Micky Dolenz. “Mick is a great performer,” says Nesmith. “I love working with him. He’s a wonderful guy. So the idea of us going out and doing something under the banner of the Monkees is under discussion. The agents are standing there with a stack of offers. I think they are running through June, but we have not accepted anything.”
If such a tour does happen, it won’t mean, at least to Nesmith, that he’s going back on his 2016 pledge that Monkee Michael walked offstage forever at the 2016 Pantages Theater show. “This isn’t Monkee Michael and Monkee Micky going out,” he says. “If we go out on another tour and we do it and use the Monkees logo and name promote it, it will be very different than a Monkees show. I mean, it’ll be Monkees music, but there’s no pretense there about Micky and I being the Monkees. We’re not. We’re the remnants, but we’ll have a good time if we do it.”
This proposed tour begs a very obvious question: Why isn’t Peter Tork involved? Nez picked his words very carefully when we posed this to him. “Well, you’d have to ask Peter,” he says. “I’m afraid I would betray a confidence if I said any more than, ‘This is not a right time for him.’ I don’t think it would untoward for you to give him a call and just launch the question. He has his reasons. They are very private. If he’s willing to share them with you, so be it.”
We reached out to Peter Tork and got this response via email: “Nez’s comment sounds oddly worded,” he wrote. “Although he and I have not been in touch for more than a year (which is not unusual in our history), I have in general made no secret of the fact that all these recent years of Monkees-related projects, as fun as they’ve been, have taken up a lot of my time and energy. Moving forward I have blues projects that I want to give my attention to and focused on putting together some shows with my band, Shoe Suede Blues in support of our new CD Relax Your Mind, a Lead Belly tribute project that’s very dear to my heart. So, I’m shifting gears for now, but I wish the boys well, and I’ve learned to never say never on things further down the line.”
Whatever happens going forward, right now Nez is focused on the future of the First National Band and figuring out exactly why it’s suddenly become so popular. “Dare I say it became hipster music?” he asked. “No. I don’t say that. But dare I say that it’s music whose time has come? I’m pretty confident in saying something like that. I never thought it would happen.”