He was country when country wasn’t cool.
Longtime Carmel Valley resident and music/video/pop culture polymath Michael Nesmith, known familiarly as “Nez” ever since those long-ago days with The Monkees, rediscovered his Texas roots shortly after leaving the band.
The First National Band, his pioneering country rock group featuring legendary Red Rhodes on pedal steel guitar, pre-dated the huge success of groups like The Byrds and The Eagles.
True to Nesmith’s track record – always several steps ahead of the curve – they have since achieved cult status.
Nesmith and his two sons, Christian and Jonathan, have lent their considerable talents to re-forming a group called the First National Band Redux, with tight production values, new members (Pete Finney subbing for the late Mr. Rhodes on pedal steel) and an album recorded live at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. The album gives musical form to Nesmith tunes from “A Different Drum” and “Some of Shelly’s Blues” (famously covered by Linda Ronstadt) to “Joanne” and other classics deemed unsuitable when Nez first offered them to the Monkees’ producers.
Oh yeah – Nez is marking his debut performance at the West End Celebration with his bandmates on Saturday, Aug. 24. This don’t-miss event closes another circle for Nesmith, who has been based in Sand City since before it achieved its current status as an artist’s colony, recording one of the first modern music videos at his former office at 361 Orange Ave.
It’s an occasion marked by an official resolution of recognition from the tiny municipality’s City Council.
Sitting around the corner in his current headquarters, Videoranch3D, the musician takes it in stride. “[West End Celebration] organizer Steve Vagnini has been on me every year since it started, telling me, ‘You’ve got to play – this is where it all started,’” he says.
“This area was such a hotspot, with Monterey Pop, Hendrix and all that going on,” he continues.
“Mickey [Dolenz] got a headdress and a costume and had a great time. That’s where Jimi [Hendrix, who famously opened for the Monkees] lit up his guitar. Janis, Otis – it was a landmark moment, something that changed history forever. When things like that happen, there needs to be a marker of some kind – it’s worth remembering.”
But he’s more comfortable talking about the “new” FNB. As he says in the liner notes to the new album: “It’s the best I can do… So if I die now, this is it, guys.”
Despite a health scare last year that required quadruple bypass surgery, Nez is clearly alive and kicking. He recalls the early days of the band, playing gigs with Gram Parson and members of the Flying Burrito Brothers.
“Our sound was mellifluous, with a Latin swing,” he says. “Gram’s group was playing a kind of clunky country music. He was someone who had gone to Harvard and may have been something of an egghead who was digging around in the country form. But by that time, it was clear to me.”
After the Monkees’ demise, he and former bandmate John Ware heard Rhodes, then leading the house band at the Palomino. It was musical love at first sight. Rhodes agreed to join the band immediately, and his already inventive playing moved up a notch after Nesmith suggested he try some toking to substitute his nicotine habit.
“It was a conversation I’d previously had with John Lennon,” he says, laughing. “I said, ‘Did you ever play when you were high?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but… never again. You?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but we [The Monkees] couldn’t play for shit anyway.’”
He’s not as self-deprecating about his current efforts.
“When I first listened to the Beatles, the outstanding thing was how much louder it was than all the other records on the radio,” he says. “I had never heard that sound on anything but Beatles records. I yearned for that.
“When [son/bandmate] Christian started mixing the live set at the Troubadour, he told me, ‘This sounds unbelievable. It may be your best record yet.’”
MICHAEL NESMITH and the FIRST NATIONAL BAND REDUXplay the West End Celebration 4pm Saturday, Aug. 24, at the Independent Stage. Free. westendcelebration.com