The Jayhawks’ second record, 1989’s Blue Earth exists as something of a forgotten record in the group’s catalog. Overshadowed by 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall and 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass (for this writer’s money, two of the alt-country genre’s greatest records), Blue Earth seems to have gained a reputation as a formative record—ostensibly just a bunch of cleaned up demos that Twin/Tone saw fit to release—that might be worth a scholarly listen but not much more.
This reissue should put that notion to rest. Blue Earth hit the streets prior to Uncle Tupelo’s debut, but well after Green on Red had started exploring their slightly psychedelic take on country, and it’s not hard to buy into the argument that the Jayhawks were just as responsible for today’s alt-country sound as any of their peers. That said, is Blue Earth on par with Hollywood Town Hall or Tomorrow the Green Grass? Not quite. The arrangements, while able-bodied and even inspired in spots, are still a tad conventional (this said with hindsight knowledge of what the band and genre accomplished later—I’m not able to speak for how revolutionary the record may have sounded when it was released).
Still, it’s mighty solid. Naturally, the first thing you notice are Mark Olson and Gary Louris’ harmonies, warm and gently frayed like a good, broken-in flannel shirt. A lot of sins could be forgiven on the strength of the Jayhawks’ vocals (and the group did seem to flounder a little after Olson’s departure, although they seem to have recently gotten back on track), but Blue Earth really doesn’t have many for which to atone. “Two Angels” kicks the album off with nice harmonica and a gentle lope, with those trademark harmonies wasting no time getting started. “Dead End Angel” is a nice mix of Bakersfield shuffle and Gram Parsons sensibility (as are several others), while “Red Firecracker” cranks things up a few notches and wallows in some good twangy guitar, and “Martin’s Song” offers a nice close to the disc’s original tracklist (both “Two Angels” and “Martin’s Song” would show up again on Hollywood Town Hall. Throughout, Blue Earth ambles along comfortably, and while a few songs are easily forgotten, the overall sound is not. The Jayhawks established the cornerstones of their style early, and refined it in record time.
As for the bonus tracks, Blue Earth features three, all unreleased and recorded between 1989 and 1990. “Fingernail Moon” kicks up a little dust, riding jangly guitars and small-town imagery. “Two Minute Pop Song” runs a hair longer than its title suggests, but doesn’t overstay its welcome, and “Nightshade” borrows a little bit of late-night Creedence swamp shimmer. All three fit right in with the album’s overall mood, and unlike some of the bonus tracks on the recent Uncle Tupelo reissues, they flesh out the album and feel less like curiosities.
All in all, it makes for an album that roots rock fans should check out. Sure, sure, it pales in comparison to the group’s next two records, but not every disc can be a seminal moment in a style’s birth. Blue Earth has plenty to offer in the way of sharp songwriting and harmonies that should be snapped up every chance a listener gets.