A while ago Pat Thomas asked me if he could look at the material I was obliged to leave out of my book Hymns To The Silence: Inside the Words and Music of Van Morrison. Pat has been a great friend to the book (and although we have never actually met, to me) and I hold his book LISTEN, WHITEY!: The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 in high esteem so I was delighted to revisit the files, and was startled by how much had been left on the cutting room floor. Overwriting is clearly a habit of mine as the same holds true for my book The Monkees, Head and the 60s. So I will probably dip into both deep wells now and then for you to have a read.
First from the Monkee vault is a short excerpt from a long chapter on the music of Michael Nesmith, all of which we set aside. It’s a little book on its own, really, and this section reflects on his role in the ‘creation’, or otherwise, of country rock . Anyway this extract is based on an interview I did with Iain Matthews – brokered by the aforementioned Mr. Thomas- to discuss his memories of making the album Valley Hi, produced by Nesmith and recorded at his Countryside Studios in California.
In early October I got to see Iain play live for the first time ever despite being a fan of his since I was a kid and broke my ‘no hassling the act’ rule by buttonholing him in the bar of the little venue in Otley, Yorkshire; I was glad I did as he was very friendly and was kind enough to say he remembered our discussion.
To conclude the bookish theme, I thoroughly enjoyed his memoir Thro’ My Eyes – if you are at all interested in pop music, there’ll be something in it for you.
So here are just a few pages from the archive…but now with added pictures and music!
‘Valley Hi Countryside‘
Iain Matthews had been recruited by Ashley Hutchings into the early line up of Fairport Convention, appearing on their first three albums, Fairport Convention (1968), What We Did On Our Holidays (1969) and Unhalfbricking (1969).
Jumping ship before the band made a full-on turn toward folk- rock with 1969’s Liege And Lief he recorded a solo set Matthews’ Southern Comfort (1970) before convening a band of that name, notable in our story in that it featured a pedal-steel player not unlike Red Rhodes, Gordon Huntley. They had a number one single in the UK with their standalone 45 version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ and 1970 saw the ensemble issue two albums of what now sounds like a unique mix of English acoustic folk, r’n’b and country-rock.
It’s perfectly arguable that what Nesmith was doing in California, Matthews was doing in England at the same time – that is, experimenting with and juxtaposing aspects of the styles and genres that appealed and came naturally to him. He left this band – who continued as ‘Southern Comfort’ and made three more albums of very agreeable country-rock for Harvest Records in Britain – and signed to Elektra as part of Plainsong, who delivered their album In Search Of Amelia Earhart in 1971 (as is so often the case, overlooked at the time, a cult item now) before running out of steam –and picking it up again some years down the line.
Post Plainsong he recorded two albums in 1972 under his own name for Vertigo (swirl label and all), If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes (featuring a fabulous cameo by Sandy Denny on the title song) and Tigers Will Survive, both of which were full of a folk-country-rock blend he was making his own. Both albums have aged very well indeed and have gained substantial cult reputations since. Given the fields in which they were working it now seems entirely foreseeable that his and Nesmith’s paths would cross, and when they did, the result was an album called Valley Hi issued by Elektra in 1973.
I asked Iain Matthews for his memories of how the relationship began:
“We’d just finished the second Plainsong album and Jac Holzman, at Elektra, rejected it. He then asked me how I felt about a solo career. I told him Plainsong was faltering and that I was open to it. He said he had an idea and would I fly out to LA and meet someone. He was negotiating a label deal with Michael Nesmith’s Countryside Records. Michael and I met at his studio deep in the San Fernando valley and talked over what my expectations were. This was in late 1972. We hit it off and agreed to begin recording in January 1973. It was that simple.”
Were you familiar with his albums up to that point, Magnetic South et al?
“Yes, of course. That was the kind of music I’d been listening to during the formation of Southern Comfort. I had all of his albums. He was very inspirational.
But by the time we met, although I had total respect for him as an artist, I’d moved on and was listening to more of the Southern California songwriters. Which is why I wanted to make the kind of album I had in mind. I felt I had the goods to compete with those guys. As it turned out, I became close friends with some of the influential ones. They loved Valley Hi and ended up emulating some of it. You know who I mean!!”
We may surmise that Matthews is referring to the scene that produced The Eagles amongst many other bands around the time he was recording Valley Hi; case in point, the version of Steve Young’s ‘Seven Bridges Road ‘ on Eagles Live (1980) is a near-duplicate of the arrangement of the same song on Valley Hi (1973). In this he certainly ‘had the goods to compete’ and, it would seem, strongly influence into the bargain.
The album features one song from its producer’s catalogue:
What led you to choose the Nesmith song ‘Propinquity’ to record for the album ?
“I wanted Michael to know how much respect I had for him, as a writer and to record someone’s composition, says that. He tried to talk me out of it, but I was resolute. It’s a great song. I played it live for several years.”
Matthews does a beautiful job on the song, its literate articulation of a complex, adult sentiment suiting his thoughtful and precise and very English singing style. That ‘he tried to talk me out of it’ is interesting – ‘Propinquity’ had been with Nesmith for a long time, and was the first tune he attempted at the Nashville sessions in May ’68. He had first demo’d the tune way back in 1966, and it was part of the group of songs under consideration for his side on the projected ‘one-side-each’ double album version of what became The Monkees Present and while it is musically straight- ahead country, the lyric is unusually winding and reflective for the form.
Even the title sets it apart from the everyday, being an archaic term for closeness to another– at the very least it’s an unusual word for a 23 year old to be using for a song title. Needless to say the word doesn’t turn up in the lyric, while its ‘alternate title’ ‘I’ve Just Begun To Care’ provides part of the hook. Nesmith recorded it again in 1970 with the First National Band – a country band trimmed down to the size of a rock band, guitar, bass and drum allied to Red Rhodes’ unmistakable pedal-steel sound – and it appeared on side one of Nevada Fighter issued in 1971 and it was from here that Matthews knew the song.
By the time Valley Hi was made, Nesmith had moved away from the definitive country-rock sound of the red white and blue trilogy and had made the more avant-garde Tantamount To Treason Vol. One which was in some ways his first true solo album, featuring no songs left over from the Monkee phase. That album was recorded with ‘The Second National Band’ which existed for the purposes of this album only – he retained Red Rhodes and hired Michael Cohen to play piano, ex-Gene Vincent bassist Johnny Meeks, jazz drummer and big-band leader Jack Ranelli and, most improbably, fellow RCA artist Jose Feliciano on percussion.
The album was still-born commercially but is among my favourites in his catalogue, unique in its trippy, edgy ambience, sometimes hard rock, sometimes proto-electronica, sometimes both at once. The tracks seem to slide into and involve each other creating a soundscape you can find only in its grooves. In contrast to the high-concept design of the previous trio of album sleeves, this one is housed in a jacket depicting an ecological dystopia, with the Statue Of Liberty very nearly sunk in a sea of man-made waste and debris; this vision of a possible future and the overwhelming use of green in the image emphasises the environmental message – and maybe this careless wasting of the Earth’s ecosystem is the treasonable act referred to in the album’s title.
In place of the purposeful sleevenote we might expect to find accompanying and reinforcing this visual message, Nesmith instead gives us a recipe for beer, ‘Papa Nes’s Home Brew’. I got my Dad to help me make the recipe; the bottles exploded in the pantry. We also learn that ‘autoclaving turns this line brown’. He was clearly feeling perverse at the time and restlessly seeking a way forward.
In the period around and after this album, he had begun to set up Countryside Records, establish the recording studio that went with it and started to move into other areas of the music business, which would eventually lead on to the establishment of his Pacific Arts company, and the innovations in music video and film that would come after. So when Iain Matthews arrived at Countryside Studios he soon noticed that Nesmith was a very busy man:
“For the recording, Michael was 100% there. He had great musical ideas, he had a terrific rapport with him musicians and the actual recording went sell. But when it came to mixing, he was at a crucial stage in his label negotiations and terribly distracted by it. As I recall, I was basically left to mix the album myself. Michael would pop in from time to time, with comments and ideas. Fortunately, we’d secured the services of an Elektra house engineer, Terry Dunavan and he and I got on like a house on fire and between us, we managed to do some pretty good mixes.”
How was it working at his Countryside Studios, with Red Rhodes and the assembled musicians?
“They were absolute professionals and a wonderful group of people. In fact, Jay Lacy (the guitar player ) and I hit it off so well, we ended up writing and playing together for several years after that. Red…he was simply an icon and I was in awe of what he’d done and honoured to work in the same studio as him. Red and I became good friends. I’m still in touch with Dana, his widow.”
So although Iain Matthews has some reservations about how the album turned out, the experience seems to have been a significant one and strikes me as a meeting of two highly original and highly musical talents who were keen to work with and innovate around root-traditional musical languages – this is, in my view, best heard on a tune like the trad. ‘Old Man At The Mill’ which blends British and American folk rhythms adding in a dash of that California country. It also swings hard and two-step steady – beautiful.
So as Iain Matthews infers, by the time the Asylum label was assembling its corral of future country-rock big-sellers, Nesmith had already moved on – as One Of These Nights was about to launch The Eagles into stellar territory, Nesmith was out solo trying to promote his ‘book with a soundtrack’, The Prison. He didn’t ‘bail out’ of the form he’d helped create, rather he was led by what he wanted from and wished for his music. Matthews did something similar – setting off down the road toward English folk-rock with Fairport Convention before changing direction, following his interests and his instincts.
Michael Nesmith certainly made a major contribution to the creation of country-rock as a genre, and as a musical vocabulary other people could employ; if we return to his comments on the original vision for his trip to Tennessee we couldn’t ask for a clearer description of the sound he was wishing to realise: ‘When I went to Nashville to record, one of the things I wanted to do was to experiment with pure Nashville players playing a type of rock’n’roll sensibility’. (Sandoval p.194)
‘Country Rock’ was probably a style or an idea whose time had come as a certain generation of musicians came of age, explored and drew upon the musics of their youth and mixed them with the sounds of their now; but if we want some kind of definite answer to our original journalist style question (‘Did Michael Nesmith ‘invent country rock’?’) then I’d argue that he probably did contribute at least as much as, say, Gram Parsons, who is routinely credited with creating the style, in the creation of a new musical sound, and a space in which elements of country and r’n’b derived pop and rock could cross-pollenate.
My point would be however that this didn’t start in May 1968 – his songs on the first two Monkee albums such as ‘Papa Gene’s Blues’ or ‘The Kind Of Girl I Could Love’ feature great examples of country rock, realised via the cream of LA’s session men, but unmistakably country in their flavours. So he may or may not have ‘invented’ country rock through his experiments in form but the signature country vibe of so many of his Monkee tunes, which became ever more so as the time passed, and the clarity and innovation on his first three solo albums gave the genre an almighty shove forward out into the world, and into the marketplace, where others picked up the ball and ran with it, over the Hollywood hills and far away.
- A personal note: I used to get ribbed at school for liking Nesmith’s funny old country records whilst also lapping up punk and new wave in the late 70’s and when we found ‘propinquity’ popping up in our A-level set text of Shakespeare’s King Lear we were full of incredulous glee. I have always wondered if this is where the young Michael Nesmith encountered the word. If you know another example of the word being used in popular culture drop me a line, please!
Lear is disowning Cordelia who has disappointed him by being unwilling to praise him after the manner of her sisters:
I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity, and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee, from this, for ever. ( King Lear Act 1, Scene 1 l.124-128)