Michael Nesmith, Monkees Singer and Country Rock Pioneer, Dead at 78
Michael Nesmith never had a country hit, but he helped a future country star breakout and inspired a sound that would lead to one of the best-selling albums of all time. The Monkees singer and guitarist died of natural causes on Friday (Dec. 10).
His death comes less than one month after the Monkees finished their farewell tour at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. Rhino Records confirmed the news, adding that he was surrounded by family at the time of his death.
After leaving the Monkees in 1970, Nesmith would form the pioneering country-rock group First National Band.
"I had no notion of country-rock as a possible genre, although we used the phrase among ourselves as First National Band members," Nesmith said, talking to Goldmine in 2013. "We weren't conscious of this being innovative. It was fun to play like that, and there was plenty to say with it, and we enjoyed listening to it, to each other."
"Joanne" was the FNB's only radio hit, but Gram Parsons took notice and invited the group on tour with his Flying Burrito Brothers. Soon after, as our friends at Ultimate Classic Rock point out, groups including the Byrds and Eagles would emerge and begin to define the mainstream. Unable to follow-up "Joanne" with another hit, the First National Band broke up.
"I was heartbroken beyond speech,” Nesmith said, talking to Rolling Stone in 2018. "I couldn’t even utter the words 'the Eagles,' and I loved Hotel California and I love the Eagles ... the Eagles now have the biggest-selling album of all time and mine is sitting in the closet of a closed record company?"
In 1966, the Monkees became famous on a television show of the same name. It aired for two seasons and Nesmith, often wearing a green knit cap, starred alongside Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork. They played songs handed to them, but Nesmith would soon lead a charge to earn their creative freedom from manager Don Kirshner. He had along the way written hit songs like "Mary, Mary," "The Girl I Knew Somewhere" and "Listen to the Band," but a song called "Different Drum" that pre-dated the TV show set the stage for the battles to come.
Talking to Rock Cellar in 2021, Dolenz recalled Nesmith being told it was not a Monkees song.
"And Nez said, 'Wait a minute, I am one of the Monkees.' And they said, 'Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. Thank you but no thank you. It's not a Monkees song.'"
In 1967, country-rock group the Stone Poneys would make it a Top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. This would launch the career of Linda Ronstadt.
Nesmith largely avoided attempts to reunite the Monkees until 1996, when he recorded their album Justus. After Jones died in 2012, the Houston, Texas, native toured with the band and then helped record the Good Times! reunion album in 2016. He passed at the chance to tour with the band after that, but relented in 2019 when Tork died. The final Monkees tour date was on Nov. 14, 2021.
"With infinite love, we announce that Michael Nesmith has passed away this morning in his home, surrounded by family, peacefully and of natural causes," Nesmith's family members said in an official statement on Friday. "We ask that you respect our privacy at this time, and we thank you for the love and light that all of you have shown him and us."