“That’s where I went to nursery school. And my grade school is coming up here.”
Mark Olson is pointing out the window from the front seat of a van rolling down Highway 100 in St. Louis Park, Minn. Listening (but just barely) from the back seat, Gary Louris looks amused.
“Usually you have to pay for a historic sightseeing tour like this,” he cracks.
Ah, old friends. Olson and Louris spent a decade together - a lot of it in a van - fronting one of Minnesota’s most influential rock bands, the Jayhawks. Then they spent a decade apart, rarely talking. Now, they’re back together, trading friendly barbs and bittersweet harmonies once again, almost like the split never happened.
Olson and Louris are not interested in offering up any history lessons, though.
“Ready for the Flood,” their first album together in 14 years, and first-ever as a duo, is decidedly different from any Jayhawks record. The 15 folky tracks feature little more than two acoustic guitars and those two-man harmonies they model so well after the Everlys, Louvins and Simon & Garfunkel.
Two weeks ago, the cohorts criss-crossed the Twin Cities to promote their CD - two on-air radio sets, a wheel-greasing gig at Best Buy’s corporate offices and a fun little in-store at Treehouse Records. The driver for this promo whirlwind (literally and figuratively) was Peter Jesperson, the Twin/Tone Records co-founder who gave Olson and Louris their first deal back in 1989. Jesperson also gave them their latest contract at New West Records, where he’s a vice president.
Louris couldn’t resist razzing his other old friend during a stop at the Homestead Pickin’ Parlor in Richfield, where they bought strings and equipment for a three-week East Coast tour that started the next day.
“Is this the part of the deal where the record label buys us a new guitar as a goodwill gesture?” he joked to Jesperson.
Here are other snapshots from that day.
CITIES 97’S STUDIO C, NOON-ISH
Jesperson nodded his head as the duo finished their lonesomely pristine single, “Turn Your Pretty Name Around,” in just under three minutes and 30 seconds - the length it needed to be for an appearance three nights later on “The Late Show With David Letterman.”
Afterward, Olson filled in DJ Brian Turner on his rather unconventional living arrangements. He lives on a ranch in Joshua Tree, Calif., right next door to his ex-wife, singer/songwriter Victoria Williams.
“We still have a great relationship,” he said, also giving a healthy prognosis of Williams (who has multiple sclerosis).
In the building’s lobby, while the others ordered sandwiches to go, Olson revisited his all-too-often-revisited decision to leave the Jayhawks in 1995. Louris carried on as the group’s lone frontman for eight more years and three more albums.
“I had just bought my first house and just gotten married - two huge things,” he recalled. “I was trying to focus on them, and I was also burnt on being in a rock ‘n’ roll band. For the first year, all I did was work on the house.
“If I had to do it over again, I would’ve somehow tried to figure out how to just take a year off. But it really doesn’t work that way, and I certainly don’t have any regrets about spending that time with Victoria and leading the life we had.”
ON HWY. 100, 1:30 P.M.
Olson’s rolling memories of his childhood sparked the story of how he met Louris, who moved to Minneapolis from Ohio for college. “We were in rival rockabilly bands,” Louris recalled. “There was a little rockabilly scene then. We took a lot of our energy from that music.”
At a chance run-in at the old Embers in Uptown - not exactly a cool genesis for one of the city’s marquee bands - Olson wooed Louris into a new group he had started with bassist Marc Perlman, one that would combine rootsy American music with more of a modern rock edge. This was long before “alt-country” had a name.
In a bio he wrote to promote “Ready for the Flood,” local folk/blues vet Tony Glover recounts how the Jayhawks fell between the cracks when they emerged in 1985. They were too twangy and old-school for the punk and rock bars and not old-school enough for the acoustic folk/blues West Bank scene.
“They might’ve been the first band to play the 400 Bar with a full drum kit,” Glover wrote. “What made them more interesting was that they were doing Woody Guthrie and hard-core country tunes to an audience of younger kids more at home over in Uptown.”
Both singers look back on those days with pride.
“We spent a lot of years working hard and developing our sound,” Olson said.
Louris even sees similarities between the infant days of the Jayhawks and the new record. A few songs on “Ready for the Flood” date back to early recordings known to diehard fans as “The Mystery Demos,” including “Turn Your Pretty Name Around,” “Cotton Dress” and “The Trap’s Been Set.”
“What we do now sounds a whole lot like the Jayhawks I knew way back when, when it was just Mark and I writing songs and recording demos on acoustic guitars,” Louris said.
BEST BUY HEADQUARTERS, 2 P.M.
Eight years ago, Louris quit the Jayhawks for more or less the same reason Olson did: to get off the music business merry-go-round, which includes lots of meet-and-greets and unplugged performances for music executives in sterile board rooms. Just like the scenario at Best Buy.
“One thing the Jayhawks did was work hard, so we did a lot of this,” Louris said.
As a stream of Best Buy employees grabbed cupcakes on the way to their seats, Jesperson put the gig in perspective.
“With the industry and economy in such bad shape, if someone like Best Buy wants you to come and sing, you’d be foolish to turn it down,” he said.
More than usual, Jesperson seems eager to promote “Ready for the Flood.”
“I love that it’s just their two voices singing live,” he said. “The voices still sound like the Jayhawks, but the writing is different. They’ve come so far. They’ve matured into real songwriting giants, I think.”
EN ROUTE TO TREEHOUSE RECORDS, 2:45 P.M.
“We weren’t trying to get away from anything,” Louris said of the album’s non-Jayhawks sound. “It just seemed like the right thing to do. We both knew we didn’t want to tour with a band and crew and bigger situation. Personally, I had been doing the rock thing for so long, it was exciting for me to play just with an acoustic guitar.”
In 2005, the singing partners went on their first tour, featuring a stripped-down band with Olson on bass. In 2006, they toured again, but just as a duo.
“It wasn’t until the second tour when it really felt like it was happening,” Olson said. “Toward the end, we had a show in Seattle where I realized we could play in a big room, hundreds of people, and hold them with just two guitars and our voices. It was eye-opening. After that, we said, ‘That was fun. Let’s do it again, but let’s have a new record.’”
They wrote the new songs and retooled the older ones over one week in the summer of 2006. Olson went off and recorded a well-received solo album, “Salvation Blues,” then they reconvened that winter in Southern California for a week in the studio with Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson as producer. (Robinson also produced Louris’ 2008 solo disc, “Vagabonds,” recorded a few months after “Ready for the Flood.”)
“We really wanted to nail the singing first and keep it focused on the voices, instead of doing the guitars and drum tracks first and the singing later,” Olson said. “It worked. Writing classic songs is always a challenge, but the singing with Gary and I just comes easily and naturally.”
INSIDE FRENCH MEADOW BAKERY, 3:30 P.M.
“You’re not getting any dirt, if that’s what you want.”
Louris said this as his fellow mop-top of a son, Henry, 9, excitedly paged through the new Lego catalog one table over. (Henry and his mom, Julie, came out to see the Treehouse gig across the street.) He even managed to laugh at the memory of whatever bitter words he and Olson laid out before they started writing together again.
They reunited in 2001 to write a song for the baseball flick “The Rookie.” The track, “Say You’ll Be Mine,” instead wound up on a CD by Olson’s and Williams’ group, the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, but it rekindled the friendship.
“We spent a couple hours just talking, going through anything that needed to be gone through,” Louris remembered. “That was done, and then we wrote two songs.”
“It was mostly my fault we didn’t talk for so long,” Olson offered. “I just got into a sort of secluded mode with Victoria and the house. I should’ve gotten on the phone.”
The Jayhawks reunited last summer at a festival in Spain with Olson and keyboardist Karen Grotberg back aboard. Both frontmen are open to doing it again - but not too often. “I know we’ll do more,” Louris said. “Whether we make another record or do another tour, I doubt it. That might be like trying to recapture old glories on the football field.”
TREEHOUSE RECORDS, 4:15 P.M.
It’s not a football field, but the scene inside the south Minneapolis record store did reek of old glories.
“This one will take you back to a simpler time,” Louris told the crowd crammed in between the vinyl and CD bins.
“When men were men,” Olson smirkingly interjected.
The duo then started up “Nothing Left to Borrow,” from their last Jayhawks album together. With just two voices and two guitars, the song sounded simpler than it ever had - not necessarily better, but the simplicity was clearly the spark that lit it up.
THE WINDING PATH OF MARK OLSON AND GARY LOURIS
February 1985: Jayhawks form. Louris soon joins.
1986: Self-titled debut, aka “The Bunkhouse Record,” released.
1989: Twin/Tone album “Blue Earth” earns national press.
1991: Band signs with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label.
1992: “Hollywood Town Hall” is widely heralded as a landmark country-rock album.
1995: Follow-up CD “Tomorrow the Green Grass” spawns minor hit “Blue,” but only mediocre sales. Olson quits.
1997: First Olson-less Jayhawks disc, “Sound of Lies.” Olson releases CD with wife Victoria Williams.
2001: Duo reunites to write a song for a movie soundtrack.
2003: Seventh and last Jayhawks album, “Rainy Day Music.”
2004: Final Jayhawks tour dates. Louris works as co-writer with Dixie Chicks and a producer.
2005: Louris announces the end of the Jayhawks as he and Olson hit the road with a small band.
2006: Duo tour leads to songwriting and then recording session.
2008: Jayhawks reunite for festival in Spain with mid-‘90s lineup.
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