When is a Jayhawk not a Jayhawk?
For Mark Olson - co-founder and, for a time, co-lead singer and songwriter for the fabled Americana band The Jayhawks - it can be when passion is reignited for the folkish, alt-country music he walked away from in 1995. He is again recording and touring with fellow Jayhawks chieftain Gary Louris, but the music they are creating is, in essence, entirely new.
“It’s sort of a brand-new beginning in a way,” Olson said by phone last weekend from his home in Joshua Tree, Calif. “When we started in The Jayhawks, Gary and I would always get together and write songs on acoustic guitars. Then we would go play them with the band, and the music would change. Now we’re writing songs together, again on acoustic guitars. Only this time, we just went in and played them that way in a studio.”
Louris and Olson are playing only three national shows that they have scheduled as a duo this year. But don’t think either has been idle of late.
After resuming their artistic partnership in 2005, the two recorded an album of new songs in early 2007 called “Ready for the Flood.” But when the album’s release was delayed, both refocused on solo recordings - Olson on his novellalike “The Salvation Blues” and Louris on his more Jayhawks-savvy “Vagabonds.” “Ready for the Flood,” produced by Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson (as was “Vagabonds”) is now scheduled for an early 2009 release.
But that isn’t all that has fanned the flames of the Jayhawks’ faithful. As recently as two weekends ago, the entire mid-‘90s lineup of the band (Louris, Olson, bassist Marc Perlman, keyboardist Karen Grotberg and drummer Tim O’Reagan) reunited for a full concert at the Azkena Rock Festival in Vitoria, Spain.
“It was great,” Olson said of the performance. “We rehearsed two days, although we all worked on the songs prior to that. We did basically everything from the ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ and ‘Tomorrow the Green Grass’ albums,” the 1992 and 1995 recordings that solidified much of The Jayhawks’ international fan base.
“There were lots of other bands there that night, including Los Lobos and Dinosaur Jr.,” he said. “They were telling us, ‘Hey, you guys sounded great,’ and ‘Way to go.’ It was really fun.”
Olson’s alliance with Louris began in Minneapolis. After they formed the Jayhawks with Perlman in 1985, the band strived to find a niche in the musically fertile metropolis.
“We had listened to the Flying Burrito Brothers and to soul music, gospel and early country and blues - music that spoke to a real tradition. But when we first came out, it was almost like we were little out of time.
“There were these two major scenes in Minneapolis - the rock scene and the folk/country scene. We worked within both of them and began making records and writing songs together. There’s no book on how to write songs. Well, I’m sure there is, now that I think about it. But most people work songs out for themselves. That’s what Gary and I did. It was almost like there was a sort of hands-on carpentry to what we were doing. We worked on the songs together and we worked on how to sing harmonies together.”
Curiously, The Jayhawks had just scored a breakthrough hit with the harmony-rich “Blue” when Olson left the band to pursue homier folk sounds with then-wife Victoria Williams in the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers.
“With the Creekdippers, I played more of a supporting role. I started playing different instruments - specifically bass and piano. That was my post-Jayhawks experience until I made my own record (“The Salvation Blues”). The music had become more about growing in a direction where I wasn’t a lead vocal person. But when I came back to playing acoustic guitar, and, especially, to writing with Gary, there was this whole new desire to play that music again.”