The Wikipedia page for Michael Nesmith, the reluctant Monkee, includes an unusual statement about his first solo project, the country-tinged First National Band. “No clear answer has ever been given for the band’s breakup,” the entry reads.
So we asked. And Nesmith laughed.
“Here is all the sufficiency I think you’re going to need,” he says. “We couldn’t get work! How’s that?”
Now, however, nearly 50 years since Nesmith struck out on his own, he’s on the road celebrating the belated interest in his country-rock albums of the early 1970s. With cosmic imagination and pedal steel guitar, those records were Americana long before the style was christened. The tour, featuring a new version of the National Band, hits the Somerville Theatre on Wednesday.
When he went solo, “I was surprised to see that the traction, the acceptance was virtually zero,” says Nesmith, on the phone from his home in Monterey, Calif. “It may have been there was an overshadow from the Monkees.” Over the years he has often called himself a “pariah,” both for his tendency to resist many of the expectations of being part of the original prefab band, and the backlash the band got from “serious” music fans.
“The people who did come, and bought the records, not that there were very many, but they have stayed with it. Now every place I play is jammed.”
There are plenty of great tunes on those First National Band albums and on Nesmith solo outings such as 1973’s “Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash.” The FNB debut actually featured the sole hit single of Nesmith’s solo career, “Joanne.” On their second album, they remade “Listen to the Band,” one of Nesmith’s biggest contributions to the Monkees catalog.
And on “Ranch Stash” he sang a moving version of “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” better known by then from cover versions by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Linda Ronstadt’s Stone Poneys. Ronstadt, of course, also had her first big hit with Nesmith’s “Different Drum.”
Nesmith, who is 75, had to cancel some dates earlier this year on tour with fellow Monkee Micky Dolenz. What was initially reported as a “minor” health scare turned out to be quadruple bypass surgery.
“I feel back to normal,” he reports. “Right now my strength and voice are good.”
The Monkee known simply as “Mike” is a complex character. He’s a Houston native who retains a bit of his drawl despite more than a half century stationed on the left coast. He was a video innovator before there was an MTV, an early convert to televised sketch comedy (look up his silly-surreal one-hour special “Elephant Parts”), and the Hollywood producer who got “Repo Man” made.
“There’s a lot of dark magic in video television,” Nesmith says. “You have to parse it very carefully as an artist.”
His solo career was all but over by the time the video age ramped up. In hindsight, his work with the First (and Second) National Band was way ahead of its time, more in line with the fractured roots music of Chris Gantry and David Crosby’s “If I Could Only Remember My Name” than the more routinely cited examples of country-rock pioneering, such as Gram Parsons’s Flying Burrito Brothers.
In “Infinite Tuesday,” his 2017 memoir, Nesmith describes the uncanny playing of his old friend Red Rhodes, a session musician who played pedal steel with Nesmith until his death in 1995, as “a string section and a brass section and a Mars section all rolled into one.”
‘The people who did come, and bought the records, not that there were very many [at first], but they have stayed with it. Now every place I play is jammed.’
That proved a neat fit with the music Nesmith envisioned: “a cross between cafeteria-organ-Latin-blues music and Hank Williams.”
The current edition of Nesmith’s band — FNB Redux, he calls it — features Pete Finney on pedal steel. Like Rhodes, Finney is capable of “wild excursions.”
“I was gratified by how quickly they understood what the First National Band was,” Nesmith says of his young touring mates.
The surviving Monkees, Nesmith, Dolenz, and Peter Tork — Davy Jones died of a heart attack in 2012 — recorded a well-received comeback album, “Good Times!,” in 2016. True to form, Nesmith was not enthralled when the band asked him to take part in a follow-up, a Christmas album. But he relented, cutting two songs for the upcoming release, covers of “The Christmas Song” and “Snowfall,” the weird seasonal standard written by Claude Thornhill.
Though he still takes those Monkees gigs, he remains as stubborn as ever. “Just make good records,” he says, “and at some point they’ll come around and take care of you.”
At the Somerville Theatre, Somerville, Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $39.50 and $49.50, 800-745–3000, www.livenation.comJames Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.