The Jayhawks would become one of the key bands in the development of alt-country, releasing two true classics (Hollywood Town Hall and the even better Tomorrow the Green Grass). Their 1986 self-titled debut album, however, has long been a mystery. Frequently referred to as “The Bunkhouse Album”, The Jayhawks was released as a 2000-copy run through Bunkhouse Records, a label the band’s manager Charlie Pine started to release the disc. Pine’s faith and financial backing—at least according to founding member Mark Olson’s new liner notes—seem to have been the driving forces behind the album. That faith certainly wasn’t misplaced, but what we get here is the substance of something not yet heard, rather than a complete artistic success.
The band would soon learn to combine their country, folk, and rock influences in a memorable way. At this point in their career, though, the Jayhawks were more grounded in country and western sound. The Jayhawks might not be 100% C&W (owing some debt to artists like Gram Parsons and Gene Clark), but it fits pretty well in that mold. At its best, as on “Let the Last Night Be the Longest (Lonesome Memory)” or “People in This Place on Every Side”, the band plays well, but not stunningly.
As would be the case throughout the band’s career, the vocalists excel. Olson and Gary Louris aren’t yet at their peak, but they’ve quickly learned how to meld their voices. The harmonies so integral to their sound are present immediately, to the point that it’d be fruitless to point out top examples. Even at moments when the lyrics or music sag a little, the vocals keep the album rewarding. And there is some sag here, even though the album is less than 40 minutes long. “(I’m Not in) Prison” and “King of Kings” make for a tough pairing, the first a forgettable romp and the second a pairing of a Dylan-inspired verse (think “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”) with a gratingly-delivered chorus. It’s tough to have more than six minutes of filler coming this late in this quick a listen.
In general, the performances work fine, but the material isn’t as original as it could be. Too often the band relies on traditional country topics, matching the twang of the guitar with songs about jail or drinkin’. In more experienced hands, the songs might have worked. Instead, the album too often feels like the dreaded genre exercise.
Of course, the real problem with the album comes when you hear it after the rest of the group’s catalog, but it’s difficult to resist comparing what’s in the Bunkhouse to what would come a few years later. Olson’s liner notes include a paragraph essentially about throwing away your old things, saying, “It is other people’s stuff.” It’s a fine way to think about music that plays (and maybe feels to its creators) a bit like a preface.
At the same time, holding it up to later material also gives it extra significance. The record doesn’t actually become better or worse based on what you know about the group, but it offers a peculiar insight, shedding light onto the earliest workings of the Jayhawks, revealing them at a time when they were still grasping, playing with an energy they hadn’t quite figured out where to direct. Even ignoring that sort of study, it’s still a reasonably good listen.