The song first became popular in 1967 when recorded by the Stone Poneys featuring Linda Ronstadt, who took their version of "Different Drum" to #12 on the Cash Box Top 100, #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and #16 in Record World magazine. The song did best in New Zealand, where it reached #5. In 1972, Nesmith recorded his own version of his song. "Different Drum" has since been covered by other artists over the years.
The song reached a wider audience when Mike Nesmith rushed through a version of it in a comedy bit while pretending to be Billy Roy Hodstetter, in the Monkees television show episode "Too Many Girls", which aired in December 1966. Davy Jones mentions this during the commentary track on some DVDs of this episode.
The song tells of a pair of lovers, one of who wants to settle down, while the other wants to retain a sense of freedom and independence. Its narrator is the lover who wants to remain free, telling the other that "we'll both live a lot longer" if they part ways now.
Nesmith later rerecorded the song for his 1972 LP And the Hits Just Keep on Comin'. His version contains four verses, as opposed to the three in Ronstadt's version.
The song is best known for the 1967 version credited to the Stone Poneys featuring a vocal performance by a young and up-and-coming singer named Linda Ronstadt. The song was Ronstadt's first hit single, reaching number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 as well as number 12 on the Cash Box magazine singles chart. (It went to number 1 in the Los Angeles market and number 6 in Detroit.) Ronstadt's version flips the gender references in Nesmith's original lyrics, replacing "girl" with "boy" when describing her lover, but still referring to him being "pretty". The Stone Poneys had initially intended to record an "acoustic ballad version" of the song, but producer Nick Venet opted for a more complex instrumental approach, using an arrangement by Jimmy Bond (who also played bass), guitarist Al Viola, drummer Jim Gordon, strings led by Sid Sharp, and harpsichord played in baroque style (and largely improvised during the recording) by Don Randi. As a result, Ronstadt was the only member of the Stone Poneys who actually performed on the record. The album rendition offers a different stereo mix than the hit single, including a longer harpsichord bridge. Ronstadt later commented that she had been surprised and "completely confused" by the changed approach to the song, and that even years later she perceived "fear and a lack of confidence" in her performance. Nesmith, on the other hand, said that Ronstadt's performance of his song "infused it with a new level of passion and sensuality". In later live performances of the song, Nesmith would often sing the closing verse in the same singing style as the Ronstadt version.