His first major extracurricular experiment reared its wacky head in the summer of 1968. The Wichita Train Whistle Sings was recorded over two days with dozens of L.A.’s finest session players, and presented ten instrumental arrangements of Nesmith tunes, some already familiar from earlier Monkees albums. The record is best appreciated if one is fluent with the more standard recordings, because the styles used here range wildly from easy listening to high school marching band, with prominent banjos and a determination to be just plain nutty. Laughter at zany guitar lines is left in, along with the notorious sound of Tommy Tedesco’s prized Telecaster being hurled into the air and crashing to the floor.
Magnetic South came first, frontloaded with Nesmith originals, some of which were those Monkees leftovers: the samba-flavored “Calico Girlfriend”; the all-too-brief “Nine Times Blue”, which goes into the nearly funky “Little Red Rider”; “The Crippled Lion”, a hidden Nesmith gem; and the surprising hit story-song “Joanne”, which cuts right to “First National Rag”, something of a commercial break telling the listener to flip the record over. There he pulls out the yodel for “Mama Nantucket” and “Keys To The Car”, and gets a little ambitious with “Hollywood”, but by ending with two covers—the straight croon of “One Rose” and a “mind movie” rendition of “Beyond The Blue Horizon”—it’s a nice little trip.
Layla. Red Rhodes’ solo “Rene” closes the album, and the chapter, fittingly.
The three First National Band albums have been in and out of print over the years, and further reissues have gone as far as abridging them to cram the most music in. If one enjoys Nesmith’s voice and writing, and can handle a lot of pedal steel guitar, they’re worth checking out, particularly for fans of Gram Parsons. If anything, they run rings around Changes.
Michael Nesmith The Wichita Train Whistle Sings (1968)—2
Michael Nesmith & The First National Band Magnetic South (1970)—3
Michael Nesmith & The First National Band Loose Salute (1970)—2½
Michael Nesmith & The First National Band Nevada Fighter (1971)—3