Take the Last Train to Nashville: The Monkees in Music City

When The Monkees took the Ryman Auditorium stage Wednesday night (July 24), it marked the first time the band (minus the late Davy Jones) had been inside the hallowed venue in 44 years.

The Monkees

Three of The Monkees…

Though now a venerable pop-culture institution, The Monkees were watching their fortunes wane back in 1969. They’d rapidly scaled the pop charts less than three years earlier on the strength of well-tooled commercial songs and a prime-time NBC television show that ran for two seasons. Reduced to a threesome after the departure of Peter Tork, the remaining Monkees—Jones, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith—continued their battle for musical credibility after being unjustly tagged as actors merely pretending to be a rock band. Many in the industry disparaged them, though Johnny Cash was not among their detractors—the independent-minded Man in Black invited them to come to the Ryman to tape a segment for his new summer replacement series, which they did on May 6 of ’69, performing Nesmith’s little-known and distinctly country-sounding original, “Nine Times Blue.”

Cash, whose groundbreaking ABC-TV variety show brought the unprecedented likes of Neil Young and Bob Dylan into the living rooms of late-’60s America, would also host the group at his Old Hickory Lake home. Carlene Carter (daughter of June Carter Cash) remembers this well. “[John and June]  would always have the [TV show] guests out to the house for dinner, but The Monkees came and stayed all day. So Rosie [Nix, Carlene’s half-sister] and I were just going crazy . . . and shy, and giggling. They were very sweet and fun. They were like kids—I guess they were pretty young—and they were in awe of John, which most people were at that point in time.” Carter feels certain that Jones, Dolenz and Nesmith would have joined the family for June Carter’s “real Southern down-home cookin’—hush puppies, fried fish—and I don’t know that they’d had a lot of that,” Carter now reckons. “Sitting on a boat dock and fishing . . .  I don’t think that was in their repertoire, either.”

The MonkeesRosanne Cash adds a treasured family memory about the group’s stint as amateur Tennessee anglers. “Dad told the story for years, with great amusement, of taking Davy fishing and Davy saying, in his adorable accent, ‘I’m on to a biggie, Johnny!’” Cash and Nesmith, says Rosanne Cash, “liked each other and were intrigued by each other. I wouldn’t say they were close friends. Michael was kind of … tough. A bit sardonic.” As an innovative, country-influenced songwriter, Nesmith in particular seems to have attracted Cash’s attention.

Nesmith, now acknowledged as one of the pioneers of country rock, presumably followed the lead of Dylan and The Byrds, who’d come to Nashville and cut acclaimed and influential albums fusing country, folk and rock. While still recording under the Monkees moniker, Nesmith traveled to Nashville in late May of 1968 to record with A-team session musicians, packing 14 three-hour sessions (plus a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Sho-Bud steel guitar shop on Lower Broadway) into a five-day period.

Among those booked for Nesmith’s studio dates was pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green, who had worked with The Byrds on their landmark Sweetheart of the Rodeo sessions just two months earlier. He’d also joined them on the Opry stage for the infamous March 1968 segment during which conservative crowds booed the long-haired band, egged on by the undisguised scorn of certain Opry regulars. Green’s recollection of meeting Nesmith for the first time at RCA Studios suggests that the Monkee was perhaps feeling edgy about this adventure on which he’d embarked—possibly due to the insulting treatment The Byrds had received from the country music establishment, or perhaps simply due to the critical pummeling The Monkees had undergone.

“I walked into the studio with my amp and steel and he’s standing by himself, facing the drum booth,” recalls Green, who was the first to arrive that evening. “Above the big drum booth was this logo of the RCA dog and the gramophone. And he’s standing there with his arms folded, looking at it. And he had on this solid white Nehru suit: peg-leg white pants, a long coat, a white turtleneck shirt, white patent leather shoes. And I walked up and introduced myself. And he didn’t even look at me. He said, ‘Yeah, I know who you are.’” Green remembers thinking, “Hey, the guy’s dressed like he’s in Hollywood, like he’s a celebrity. And he’s working in an environment with musicians, you know, who don’t give a damn less who he is, or if he’s anybody.”

As Wayne Moss, one of the guitarists hired for Nesmith’s sessions, explains, “We were there to do a job, and it wouldn’t matter if we’d never heard of the person, or if it was Elvis. [With] Dylan, you know, Charlie [McCoy] and I said, ‘Who is he?’ . . . ‘I don’t know, I think he wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ So . . . consequently we didn’t freeze up [when] we were in the presence of a star.”

The Monkees' Michael Nesmith and Nashville session musicians, June 1968. / Photo courtesy of the Andrew Sandoval Collection.

The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith and Nashville session musicians, June 1968. / Photo courtesy of the Andrew Sandoval Collection.

“But,” continues Green, “I think after all the musicians got in and he saw how warm and friendly everybody was, that nobody was wanting autographs . . . you know, we was all in there to make music, and he relaxed, and everything got a lot looser.” Moss, having sidestepped the chilly reception Green received, notes that Nesmith and the musicians “hit it off pretty good from the beginning.” Moss adds that a period of unexpected downtime during the Nesmith sessions resulted in an impromptu rendition of The Beatles’ then-current hit, “Lady Madonna.” That event led to the creation of Area Code 615, an influential, genre-bending supergroup comprised of Moss and eight of his session compatriots.

“We were killin’ time, waitin’ for [Nesmith] to finish a lyric,” recalls Moss. “And I said, ‘We need to cut an album like this. I’ve got a studio, and you guys come out and we’ll experiment.’” Moss still owns and operates Cinderella Studio in Madison, where many now-classic demo and master sessions took place, including those for Area Code 615’s pair of albums, released in 1969 and ’70.
Moss played electric guitar on some of Nesmith’s more adventurous Nashville experiments, including “St. Matthew” and “Listen to the Band,” an aggressive but joyful country-rocker that failed to break the Top 40 upon its 1969 release but would later become a key number in The Monkees’ reunion shows.

Cover for the single "Listen To The Band," released in April 1969.

Cover for the single “Listen To The Band,” released in April 1969.

The final version featured a horn section overdubbed in Hollywood, but the Nashville recording more than holds its own, with Green’s steel guitar taking the horn melody conceived by Nesmith. Bassist Norbert Putnam, who recalls cutting this song in particular, says “[it] was a lot of fun for me, because I’m mimicking Lloyd Green’s steel part [he sings a swooping line]. That was a very unusual track, ‘Listen to the Band.’” (Putnam’s forthcoming memoir, Music Lessons, will include his recollections of working with Nesmith, plus much more about his career and his role in expanding Nashville’s reputation as a multi-genre recording center.)

Putnam, who went on to produce such acts as Dan Fogelberg and Jimmy Buffett, says, “The thing that was most memorable to me about Michael was the fact that he was looking for a different blend of players . . . sort of a different way to do it. So this is Michael, pretty much just going wild on his own. He was producing this.”

Nesmith and his bandmates risked losing their young bread-and-butter fans by moving headlong into more experimental territory, inspired in part by their meeting with The Beatles in 1967. At least one young Nashville fan appreciated what Nesmith was doing, though, even if it initially caught her off guard. Then just 14 years old, Renae Pickens was allowed to sit in on Nesmith’s sessions.

“Through knowing people at RCA, a girlfriend and I sat on a couch in a corner and watched a lot of [Nesmith’s sessions],” says Pickens. “It was just a totally different sound. Very, very, very different than The Monkees, and something that we would have written off at the time as being a very country sound. We were probably real disappointed at the time.” Pickens nonetheless remembers thinking that Nesmith “was really amazing. What he was doing was very unique [compared] to anything I had heard,” says Pickens. “I think we probably appreciated that what he was doing in those sessions was different. And we liked it. But would we have bought it? I don’t know.”

Pickens says she personally had no interaction with anyone at the session. “People were literally not speaking to us,” she says, “because they thought we were some bigwig’s daughters, and that they just needed to be careful what was said or done in front of us.” Pickens had enjoyed far greater access to all four Monkees the previous year, when the group stopped here during a short

The cover for the LP "Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd," the fourth album by the Monkees, released in  November 1967.

The cover for the LP “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd,” the fourth album by the Monkees, released in November 1967.

break from touring. In town to put finishing touches on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (one of a stunning three chart-topping Monkees albums released in 1967), the foursome sparked a mass episode of Monkee fever that August. Teens, most of them female, turned out in droves to keep vigil outside the Downtowner Motor Inn at 7th and Union, where the group was staying. Pickens’ mother, Joan—a single mom and a lobbyist of some influence—met The Monkees’ head of security and got her daughter in to meet them. Soon, Mrs. Pickens had arranged for the security man and Davy (the only Monkee available) to have a cookout with her and her daughter at a secluded hunting and fishing retreat in southwest Williamson County.

Because Renae was only 13 at the time, decorum demanded that 21-year-old Davy Jones be set up with a more appropriately aged date. The solution? Miss Davidson County, Elaine LaVoi (now Ganick), a friend of the Pickens family. As Ganick recalls, “I got a phone call that afternoon from [Joan Pickens], and she said, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ I said, ‘I have a date,’ and she said, ‘Cancel it!’ I said, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘Because you have a date with Davy Jones.’ And I went, ‘Are you kidding me?’

“I was bound and determined that I was not going to be one of those screaming teenagers,” says Ganick. “So, I kind of played it cool, and didn’t ask for an autograph and all that kind of thing. My first impression of him was, you know, typical rock star, kind of full of himself. . . . I went out and sat on a swing on the front porch. And about 20 minutes later,” Ganick says, “Davy came out and sat down next to me, and at that point he became a real person. And we talked, and we had such a great time. I got a fabulous kiss—it just made my entire year that year. ” (Ganick, who became a TV personality and Nashville news anchor, would interview Jones a decade later on Channel 4’s “Noon Show,” where they enjoyed a sweet reminiscence.)

Longtime Nashvillian Steve Brumfield, who was working as the assistant to the manager of the Opry in 1969, remembers being on hand during tapings for The Johnny Cash Show and seeing The Monkees there. He also recalls an earlier occasion when the band visited the Ryman while at the peak of their popularity, probably in 1967 or ’68. “As they left, out the back door of the Ryman into the alley, there were a bunch of fans and the security was needed,” says Brumfield. By the time Johnny Cash came calling in ’69, though, the band’s commercial success had declined, and the back-door scenario at the Ryman was significantly different. “As they were leaving the building, the same way, we had the same security level to get them to their limousine, a few feet away. As they stepped out into the alley, nobody—zero, nobody—was there. They looked at each other and made a groan.”

It’s taken 44 years, but this time, The Monkees—who performed to a more-or-less full house—left the Ryman Auditiorium as conquering heroes.


Monkees photos courtesy of Rhino Entertainment.