In the grand history of pop music, there haven’t been all that many voices that blended perfectly. Oh sure, there’s been lots of harmony singing, but what I’m talking about is two voices that just sound like they were born to be together. There were the Louvin Brothers, the Everly Brothers, and the Wilson brothers, but those are kin. In the non-related category, I’d offer Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, David Crosby and Graham Nash, and John Lennon and Paul McCartney as examples. I’m sure that you can add your own favorites. Since they were not related, they had to find each other, and the stories of how that happened are often the stuff of music history.
Gary Louris and Mark Olson belong in that category. The story of how they met is really nothing that special. Both were kicking around in different bands in Minneapolis, and when the timing was right in 1985, they got together. Along with bassist Marc Perlman and drummer Norm Rogers, they formed one of the most important roots bands in American music. Call it alt-country, Americana, or No Depression, The Jayhawks were pioneers in the movement. Together with Uncle Tupelo, and later Wilco, they forged the path that many, many artists have followed over the years. Named not for the fabled bird as many suspect, but as an homage to the Dylan-backing Hawks, who became the Band, the Jayhawks have been through some changes over the years, both in their music, and in the band’s membership. They’ve never really achieved the sort of success that they’d hoped for, but they have soldiered on.
Originally inspired by the Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and anything else that Gram Parsons had to do with, the Jayhawks added something of their own to the stew, and eventually had a sound that defied categories, and ignored trends. They were originally signed to a local Minneapolis label, the legendary Twin/Tone Records, and in 1988 their early demos were spruced up and released on an album called Blue Earth. The beautiful sound of Louris and Olson’s voices blending together became their trademark, and the songs that the two co-wrote were no small part of the equation. In 1989 the august Village Voice called the Jayhawks “the only country rock band that matters.”
Things didn’t look good after Louris was involved in a near-fatal car crash in 1988, but one day George Drakoulis, an A&R man for Def American Records, happened to hear Blue Earth playing in the background when he called the Twin/Tone office. The Jayhawks were signed to Def American in 1991, and it was there that they celebrated their golden-era. Two classic albums, produced by Drakoulis, followed. Hollywood Town Hall was released in 1992. Heartbreaker Benmont Tench sat in on organ, and Nicky Hopkins played piano. Both are featured on the brilliant “Waiting For the Sun”.
Tomorrow the Green Grass followed in 1995. Tench was back, and this album saw the first appearance of keyboard player Karen Grotberg, who joined the band in 1993. By then they were on their third drummer, Don Heffington. The album featured such Jayhawks staples as “Blue,” and “Miss Williams Guitar,” which was written about Mark Olson’s wife, folksinger Victoria Williams. The Jayhawks had reached their apogee.
Then the shit hit the fan.
Mark Olson shocked everyone by leaving the band that he had put together in 1995, opting for a move to California, and a shift to folk music with his wife. Louris and Perlman did not give up. They enlisted the Jayhawks fourth drummer, the multi-talented Tim O’Reagan, and set about recording their next album. Louris also added fiddler Jessy Greene and guitarist Kraig Johnson to beef up the band’s live sound. He wrote most of the songs, with contributions from O’Reagan and Perlman. The resulting album, Sound of Lies, was released in 1997. It was probably their darkest effort, understandable given what had happened. They followed that with the controversial Smile in 2000. The Bob Ezrin-produced album found the band moving to an orchestral pop sound that was not popular with their longtime fans, but it demonstrated that they were capable of a lot more than the country rock that they were known for.
After Grotberg, Greene, and Johnson left, the Jayhawks returned to a more traditional sound. Ethan Johns produced their 2003 effort Rainy Day Music, which to this day remains the last original studio album that the band has released. The album featured what is arguably the band’s most well known song, “Tailspin.” After a 20-year career, one of America’s great bands called it quits in 2005.
Disc two of this three-disc set features rarities from all phases of the Jayhawks’ career. This music is absolutely essential for any longtime fan of the band, but newcomers will find this music appealing as well. There are recordings from the band’s rehearsal studio, solo acoustic demos from Louris, complete recordings of songs that just didn’t make it to an album, and some great B-sides. My favorite of the latter is a “big dumb rock song” called “Get the Load Out,” from the Tomorrow the Green Grass sessions, which finds the band taking on classic rock in a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek manner. I should probably give you something more representative of the band’s sound (I want you to hear every song on this album), but this is just so much fun I had to include it. If you think that Wilco is the leading band when it comes to innovation, listen to “Poor Little Fish,” which was recorded four years before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and features the kind of dissonance and noise that Wilco became known for.
The collection’s third disc is a DVD that includes various music videos that the Jayhawks made. The most compelling watch here is the electronic press kit for the Hollywood Town Hall album, which includes interviews and great live performances.
The Jayhawks’ story may yet have a happy ending. Louris and Olson eventually reunited, and toured as a duo in 2005 and 2006. They returned to the studio together and released Ready For the Flood earlier this year. The album was produced by the Black Crowe’s Chris Robinson. Ready For the Flood placed the duo in an acoustic folk setting, and featured their brilliant harmonies. They toured again in 2008, and I had a chance to see them play a wonderful set at SXSW this year.
Meanwhile, after a one-off festival performance in Spain last summer, the original lineup of the Jayhawks reunited and hit the road this summer. There’s talk of a new Jayhawks album and more touring, but there’s nothing definite. For the sake of all the fans of great music, let’s hope that we hear more from them.
If you are distressed, as I was, to find that very few of the Jayhawks albums are in print in the U.S., fear not. The entire Jayhawks catalog is scheduled to be reissued this fall.