Peanut Butter Knife

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Secret History of Country Rock: Michael Nesmith & Plainsong

I'm going to diverge from soul music for a bit this week to highlight some other vinyl I've started to uncover recently. The history of country music's influence on rock is well-worn. By now names like Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, The Flying Burrito Brothers Sweetheart of the Rodeo and others are etched in listeners' minds as the pioneers of fusing the high lonesome sound with the soul searching immediacy of late 60s/early 70s rock. These early works spawned countless imitators The Eagles, Poco, Firefall, the likes of which today is generally associated with bland easy listening better suited to a day at the grocery store or dentist's office waiting room than out on the prarie. (I could make a case for early Poco as being almost on par with the Burritos, not today though)

However, not every ex-hippie with a guitar, a penchant for denim and a copy of the first Burrito Brothers LP was destined to pick up a guitar and write paeans to takin' it easy and playing dress up like long-haired extras from a Wyatt Earp movie. Here's the spotlight on two of them.

Michael Nesmith's place in the country-rock pantheon tends to be dismissed by most critics. By all rights he has as much to do with country and rock's fusion as anyone named Parsons or McGuinn, but today's critics can't seem to look past the Monkee on Nesmith's back and don't treat his work with the same reverence that they do Parsons. And it's a shame really because Nesmith has all the bona fides to back it up. Hailing from Houston, Nesmith grew up on country and blues. He did a stint with an early folk-rock group, simply known as Mike & John, before the Monkees came along. Nesmith left the Monkees in 1969, deciding to further his interest in country music by forming the First National Band. This was after Sweetheart but before the Burritos. Nesmith's work with the First National Band was more gentle and calm than Parsons' sometimes rollicking honky-tonk raves. If Parsons was Hank Williams, than Nesmith was Jimmie Rodgers, chronicling life in the New West as California was coming down from the American Dream and the tumult of the 60s.

Included here are two songs from Nesmith's 3rd and final album with the First National Band Nevada Fighter from 1971.

Michael Nesmith "Texas Morning"

Michael Nesmith "Propinquity (I've Just Begun to Care)"

Iain Matthews is known to folk music afficionados as one of the original members of Fairport Convention. Matthews influence on the group was more from the rock angle of that classic UK folk-rock ensemble. He grew increasingly disenchanted with the groups more celtic folk leanings and left soon after the group's first album was released. Matthews solo career never quite got on track, though he made several memorable recordings. Increasingly, he became more and more drawn to American folk and country modes and the formation of Plainsong in 1972 was the result of this interest.

After signing to Elektra, Plainsong recorded the harmony laden In Search of Amelia Earhart which found these Brits doing the California folk-rock vibe better than many of their west coast contemporaries. The album is loosely based around Earhart and the stories of her possible abduction by the Japanese. The album's songcraft and vision is quite evident, why Plainsong never amounted to much is really still perplexing considering how well they blended with the sound of their times. In any case, the group would record a 2nd unreleased album before splitting up. Coincidentally, Matthews and Nesmith would collaborate on several projects in the later part of the 70s.

Plainsong "Louise"

Next time, more Chicago soul with The Esquires!


  • At 10:20 PM, Anonymous KevinHayden said…

    Wonderful reviews... brought back a few meories for this West Coast based 53 yr old alt-to-the-status-quo guy.

    And your soul reviews are equally exceptional. Keep on bringing it.

  • At 10:44 PM, Blogger Sam said…

    ...And then there is The Wichita Train Whistle Sings.

  • At 11:08 PM, Blogger 54cermak said…

    Sam, I'd love to hear that album. My policy for now is to blog about records I find on various digs around Ohio.

  • At 4:23 PM, Blogger Monkeesfan said…

    The worst part about critics who dismiss Michael Nesmith's pioneering work in fusing country and rock is that this fusion began with his Monkees work, on songs such as "Papa Gene's Blues," "Sweet Young Thing" (a superior fusion of Dixie Chicks fiddle with Dave Clark Five fuzztone), "All The King's Horses," "You Told Me," and onward.

    Another interesting note is that some of Mike's chords and melodies are being ripped off by modern Nashville acts - try and listen to SheDaisy numbers like "Little Goodbyes" ("Little Red Rider" sideways), "I Will....But" (combines "I Am Not That" lyrics with "Nevada Fighter" guitar and fiddle), "This Woman Needs" ("Yellow Butterfly" inverted), "Please Come Home" (one of SheDaisy's worst, this one flows like Nez's superior "The Candidate"), or "Don't Worry About A Thing" (Cruisin's" motif) without thinking of Mike.


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