As his tenure in the Monkees was drawing to a close in the late ’60s, singer, songwriter and guitarist Michael Nesmith had no clue just how much his music, and his life, would change when he walked in one night to the fabled Palomino country music club in North Hollywood.
That’s where he was first exposed to Orville J. “Red” Rhodes, who soon became a partner in a musical exploration that became central to Nesmith’s post-Monkees solo career.
Rhodes, wrote Nesmith in his 2017 “autobiographical riff” “Infinite Tuesday,” was an “undisputed master” of the pedal steel.
“Red was a string section and a brass section and a Mars section all in one,” wrote Nesmith. “The lines and fills he played inside the regular country tunes were like smoke and magic, wafting in and out of the soundscape like surreptitious sprites.”
Nesmith and Rhodes recorded the 1972 album “And the Hits Just Keep on Comin,’” a work he is performing in its entirety on a brief (so far) tour, which includes Southland stops Jan. 22 at the Troubadour in West Hollywood — where Nesmith once hosted weekly “hoot nights” before “The Monkees” TV show made him an international pop star — and Thursday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
The man once dubbed “the smart Monkee” talked to The Times recently about the importance of his long friendship and musical partnership with Rhodes, who died in 1995, and the place the “Hits” album — the title was bestowed with Nesmith’s signature sense of irony and skepticism — holds in his heart.
It’s an album that included the song “The Candidate,” which obliquely channeled the turbulent times of the Nixon administration, and the political, social and psychic turmoil in the air at that time.
“Sailing ships of state and ignoring navigation laws/Through the sea of man, the captains mad with power pause, and congratulate themselves…,” one verse says.
“It’s a surprise, but maybe it shouldn’t be, that it dials in and does seem so seamless with the times [today],” Nesmith said. “That was a happy surprise and happy circumstance.”
Of the period in which the album was recorded, the 76-year-old Nesmith said, “It was at a time when we were all fast and loose and playing music as hard as we could. It was a time of altered states and new ideas, and in a new way, we’re in that time again. Politics have gone askew, like they did then. This was in 1972, and things were absolutely crazy then, and they’re absolutely crazy now.”
Nesmith left the Monkees in 1969, a year after bassist Peter Tork’s departure, winnowing the group’s lineup down to the duo of Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz.
It wasn’t long before the Texas native released the first of a series of cult-classic albums that helped create the template for Southern California country rock, albums he recorded with a group consisting of Rhodes, bassist John London and drummer John Ware, which he dubbed the First National Band.
By ’72, however, RCA Records had scored only nominal successes from those recordings. After reconfiguring the lineup and calling it the Second National Band for a fourth album, “Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1,” Nesmith stripped things down even further for “And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’.”
Last year Nesmith assembled a group dubbed the First National Band Redux—with Nashville-based steel guitarist Pete Finney stepping in — and toured with a show highlighting songs from the first three albums, along with a smattering of his Monkees hits and subsequent Nesmith solo material.
But the show largely avoided “And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’.”
“When the First National Band [Redux] idea came up, somebody said we should do the ‘Hits’ songs too, but I resisted that,” he said. “I’m not exactly sure why. Those are really good songs, and they would make a really good show; they were designed to do that.
“In an odd twist, they’re very timely given what’s happening how. Others said if you were to purvey that, people might enjoy that.”
For Finney, it’s a match made in steel guitar heaven.
“It’s a dream gig for a steel player,” he said in a separate interview, “because the songs are so strong, there’s so much freedom to take it somewhere else and Nez has so much presence on stage. I’ve done a lot of hired-gun kind of gigs, but this feels like fun. It’s a very creative setting.”
Both waxed poetic about the innovative approach to the steel guitar that Rhodes had.
As an equal partner to Nesmith during recording of “And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’,” Rhodes “wasn’t doing anything radically different than what he did on other Nez records,” Finney said. “He was just radically different on his own.
“I take some of Red’s [musical] vocabulary as a starting point,” Finney said, “but Red’s thing was fearlessness to go out on a limb.”
Finney added, “It’ll be the two of us with that record as a template. It’s not meant to be a literal re-creation of the album. We just want to play those songs with that spirit.”
Nesmith’s penchant for literary lyrics with strong imagery hit a peak on the “Hits” album, in songs such as “Tomorrow and Me,” which owes as much to Cole Porter as to Bob Dylan, “Different Drum,” the song with which Linda Ronstadt & the Stone Poneys charted her first hit, “Harmony Constant,” which Nesmith says numerous couples have told him they’ve used during wedding ceremonies, and the album’s metaphysically inclined closing track “Roll With the Flow.”
How far this tour extends is an open question.
So far, promoter Andrew Sandoval, who has overseen most of the Monkees activity in recent decades and helped organize Nesmith’s latter-day solo ventures, has lined up only a half-dozen dates. The shows are being recorded with the intention of release as a live CD later this year, as occurred with last year’s First National Band Redux shows.
“And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’,” Nesmith said, “has been an organizing focal point since I made the album. But it didn’t have any traction with the people at RCA, who were looking for more Monkees hits. With songs like ‘The Candidate’ and some other things, it was a nonstarter, in a way that broke my heart. But in another way, the cynic in me sort of expected it.
“I hope the music gets some traction once we get it out among the public,” he said of the new tour. “Once you put this out, with this sparse instrumentation, it fills up the stage and fills the songs with meaning.”
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Michael Nesmith: And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: The Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano
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