Album Review: Ian Matthews -Valley Hi (1973 LP)

Yesterday Michael Nesmith passed away at his home in California. Mostly known for being the “wool hat” of The Monkees. He left the band in 1970 to move in a more country-rock vein. His early bands First National Band and Second National Band never really caught on with fans. Even though he was an early pioneer of the genre, he never really found the success that Eagles, Poco, Linda Ronstadt and others achieved. In 1972 Nesmith felt that the labels, a lot of the musical talent and studio sessions were leaving Los Angeles and moving to Nashville. He had an idea to try and reverse this trend. Nesmith bought a farm house outside of Los Angeles and converted it from a home to a music studio. From the outside it looked just like a normal house. Nesmith convinced Elektra Records to fund the start up of the Countryside label and the Countryside Ranch recording studio, which also helped by having Elektra artists record there. In June 1973 Nesmith went on a promotional tour of his new label/studio and this included an endorsement of $30,000 from Yamaha to race one of their motorcycles in the Baja 500 (this alone bumps him up a bunch of notches in the cool factor for me).

The album I am reviewing was released in August 1973, 1 month before Elektra had a restructuring and the Countryside label was dropped, making this the last album to be released by the label. It’s too bad it couldn’t have soldiered on because the talent was definitely there. At least this album helped the label and studio to go out with a bang. Ian (also billed on other albums as Iain Matthews and Ian MacDonald) earned his chops as a member of Fairport Convention, Ian Matthews Southern Comfort, Plainsong among others. The backing players Danny Lane, Billy Graham, Jay Lacy, Bobby Warford, “Red” Rhodes, David Barry, and Byron Berline were either house band members of the Ranch or Elektra/Countryside recording artists. Michael Nesmith played guitar on this album and also produced it.

Keep On Sailing – This Ian Matthews original has unique vocals. Nesmith must have used some magic in his new studio to get the “far away” sound found here.

Old Man At The Mill – This traditional song gets a modern refresh. I get a little Steve Earle from this one. That can’t be a bad thing. This was supposed to be on a Plainsong album but it never made the cut and Elektra shelved it. Luckily they brought it back here.

Shady Lies – Ian’s old bandmate Richard Thompson wrote this song and was also recorded by Fairport crony Marc Ellington(who also died earlier this year, r.i.p.). Red Rhodes’ steel and dobro playing, the lyrics and vocals are the stars here.

These Days – Jackson Browne wrote this incredible song at the age of 16. The lyrics really hit home with me, especially the line ‘..please don’t confront me with my failures, for I have not forgotten them..” Wow. I listened to the versions by both artists a few times each and got choked up. It is an incredible song that really hits home. I prefer the original more, but this is one great cover song. Of note here is the haunting steel guitar and the way the drum enters part way through the song.

Leaving Alone – This original seems like it is a real life story for Ian. The musicians life of being constantly on the road means at the end of the night, he will be leaving alone.

7 Bridges Road – This may be the single biggest and best musical accomplishment that Michael Nesmith ever achieved. The song was written and performed originally by Steve Young. Nesmith took the song and transformed it. He was quoted as saying “Ian and I put it together and we sang about six or seven part harmony on the thing, and I played acoustic. It turned out to be a beautiful recording”. The Eagles later used a live recording of their version of this song which was basically a carbon copy of the Matthews/Nesmith arrangement. Nesmith commented on the Eagles version “Son of a gun if Don Henley or somebody in the Eagles didn’t lift our arrangement absolutely note for note for vocal harmony.. If they can’t think it up themselves and they’ve got to steal it from somebody else, better they should steal it.. from me I guess.” I prefer both covers over the original but prefer the version on this album because of all the hard work involved in making it so good.

Save Your Sorrows – Another original that was also supposed to be on a Plainsong album but ended up on here instead. This has a later Beatles meets Syd Barrett era early Floyd with some country musicians thrown in for good measure. If you like late 60’s music, you will like this one.

What Are You Waiting For – This lesser known, Randy Newman penned song originally released as a single by the ever lesser known band We Talkies. I heard a snippet of their song and can tell you that it is night and day difference. More early Floydian influence mixed with country goodness here folks. A much better representation of the great Randy Newman’s amazing songwriting abilities.

Propinquity – This Michael Nesmith song originally sung by a group of Monkees sounds different here, closer to his version with The First National Band. In my opinion it’s even better than both. Shout out again to Red Rhodes steel guitar playing. That dude is pretty awesome. This song is so good I’m sure John Denver “borrowed” the arrangement for his song Take Me Home, Country Roads. Better John should steal it from Michael, I guess.

Blue Blue Day – Don Gibson originally recorded this song in the late 1950’s. It is a sad song but he sings it with an upbeat, almost happy tone that does not suit the lyrics at all. Ian is more true to form, not overtly sad, but much sadder than the original. A nice song to end the album on.

If you like Steve Earle, early Pink Floyd, later Beatles, Monkees, Fairport Convention, Jackson Browne, 70’s country rock and late 60’s rock there will be something for you to like here.

R.I.P. Michael Nesmith. You will be missed.