The arc of Michael Nesmith’s musical career seems, in some ways, to be nearly a perfect circle. Sixty-five years after his debut with the made-for-TV Monkees as the group’s tall, Texan country rocker, he played his last show with former co-star-slash-bandmate Micky Dolenz as part of The Monkees Farewell Tour. He passed away less than a month later, his most widely beloved public success bookending his legacy.
In between iterations of “I’m a Believer”, though, Nesmith was more than just the one in the wool hat. In addition to his endeavors in other media–he created direct MTV precursor PopClips, produced television and film, and wrote three full-length books, among less categorizable projects–Nesmith was a singer and songwriter in his own right and is usually touted as the Monkees’ most musically talented member for that output.
On the posthumous two-LP release Different Drum: The Lost RCA Victor Recordings, we get 22 Papa Nez tracks on vinyl for the first time. Alternate takes, instrumentals, unreleased songs, and a handful of tongue-in-cheek radio spots add a new texture to the Nesmith oeuvre, already a distinctly Texas-meets-California amalgam of country, rock, and deeply held philosophies. For the most part, Different Drum is a satisfying expansion of this catalog that sees him reveling in the Nashville musical climate to sublime effect.
The album starts with a particularly twangy version of “Different Drum”, his most famous solo composition, thanks to its Linda Ronstadt rendition. This version is less lovelorn than his 1972 take, with a jaunt that takes the delivery from self-important to self-aware as Nesmith takes on the role of a man refusing to be tied down by one woman. He is even more in his element as he narrates the life of a weary touring drummer in previously unreleased “American Airman”, whose rousing opening riffs bring on an exhilarating rush of instrumental energy.
In many ways, the key to Different Drum’s impact lies in these instrumental moments. Backing Nesmith are the very talented compatriots of his First and Second National Bands, with particular credit due to O.J. “Red” Rhodes, whose steel guitar is as crucial to Nesmith’s credibility as a country rocker as his compositions and choices of cover songs. These consistently excellent players keep the album from coming across as scattered, instead uniting Nesmith’s diverse repertoire into a reasonably cohesive kaleidoscope of country rock.
This is important. Nesmith’s vocal delivery varies widely from track to track, and it’s no easy task for the instrumentation to keep up while staying true to a recognizable style. Still, these musicians manage. Some tracks drip with colors of Nashville, as in the rugged melancholy of “Texas Morning” and the lonesome sting of Nesmith’s cover of Paul Davis’ “Six Days on the Road”. Elsewhere, the bands take on a more straightforward psych rock sound, whether in the cryptic, slightly twisted deadpan of “Dedicated Friend” or in the vast calls of a fuller version of the Monkees’ “Circle Sky”. Already one of the Monkees’ most acid-soaked tracks, the Different Drum version takes on even more gravitas by way of determined keys and luscious guitar fuzz. Several specifically instrumental versions of Nesmith’s songs further underscore how much of his solo success was a team effort.
Though the RCA sessions lasted only a few years, Different Drum covers a lot of ground. It revamps Monkees tracks (“Magnolia Simms” and “Tapioca Tundra” get the instrumental treatment, while “Listen to the Band” loses the brass in favor of a cooler keys-based sound), touches on some of Nesmith’s more idiosyncratic projects (an instrumental version of “Marie’s Song” comes from 1974 “book-with-a-soundtrack” The Prison), and doesn’t neglect some of his softer songs (instrumental versions of “Tengo Amore” and “You Are My One” sweeten the soundscape). As with any pulled-from-the-vault album, it has its rough spots, too. “Bye, Bye, Bye” comes across a little half-hearted on Nesmith’s part, for instance, though perhaps it’s not a bad thing that he didn’t take himself too seriously.
Different Drum‘s final track also gives us a direct peek into Nesmith’s personal sensibilities by way of two radio spots for the 1970 First National Band release Loose Salute. In each, Nesmith mentions his album briefly before moving on to the music he’d rather talk about, namely, Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon. His playful defiance isn’t unprecedented–Nesmith’s time on the Monkees was marked by particular displeasure with corporate micromanaging and constant negotiation to maintain some amount of creative control–but it’s still a delight to encounter after so much reminiscing.
Michael Nesmith is easily the most compelling Monkee in terms of artistic output. His work before and during the Monkees already included many exceptional moments. As Different Drum makes clear, though, much of his later music might be even better. Monkees fame was undoubtedly a double-edged sword for Nesmith. By the RCA Victor sessions, he had more resources and easy publicity but struggled to convince many serious music fans of his credibility. In the decades since, many have reconsidered his legacy and given him the flowers he deserves. Different Drum continues to bolster the case for considering Nesmith as a major figure in country rock and American popular music in general and makes for an apt tribute in the first year after his passing.