“Where have all my friends gone? / They’ve all disappeared.”
The Jayhawks were one of those bands that never had a convenient “time” to call their own. In a town where Prince was king and Hüsker Dü and the Replacements were the court jesters, the twangy guitars and Gram Parsons-based vocal harmonies of Mark Olson and Gary Louris were probably not an easy fit in the ’80s Minneapolis scene. Even when the band graduated to the majors for its third album, the post-Nirvana environment couldn’t have been an easy era for an Americana band trying to draw a little attention. Their critical success was a selling point for their credibility, but their chart success was modest at best.
Olson eventually departed, bequeathing frontman duties to Louris, who navigated the shaky new Jayhawks lineup through an impressively muscular and confident kind of Americana, one that embraced traits of old but ultimately forecasted the alt-country movement that would bring bands like Wilco a wider audience. But we all know the difference between “popular” and “influential”, the latter guaranteeing the Jayhawks a reputation as pioneers instead of superstars. Sick of slipping through the cracks so many times, Louris hung low for a while. Olson continued working with his then-wife Victoria Williams and with his band the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers.
As co-founders Louris and Olson continually flirt with the idea of getting their old band back together, there has been a quiet resurgence of interest in the Jayhawks’ legacy. The band’s retrospective Music from the North Country was released in 2009, as was a Louris and Olson reunion album, Ready for the Flood. A reissue of the band’s long-vanished eponymous debut from 1986 finally saw the light of day in 2010, after Lost Highway promised the thing back in 2003. Are people finally starting to pay attention to the Jayhawks? Could be, because the band’s first two major label albums, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, are both getting the deluxe/reissue treatment now. And if you follow retroactive music reissues, you know that these deluxe packages apply to music that means quite a lot to a great number of people. Whether or not these two albums will ring louder with the public nowadays, American/Legacy at least feels they warrant a re-evaluation.
In 1992, Olson, Louris, Marc Perlman, and Ken Callahan released Hollywood Town Hall after inking a deal with American. And as a bid for a bigger audience outside of Minneapolis, it is quite understated. All of their components were in place; the non-linear lyrics, the high-pitched vocals of two dudes who sound separated at birth, the angular lead guitar that didn’t know whether to rock or twang, and a mellow ease missing from the U.S. charts at the time. But the band was holding its cards tightly against its collective chest, afraid to let its guard down. Sure, the songs were good. In fact, any one of them can be played around the campfire. But you had to wonder what “Crowded in the Wings” and “Take Me with You (When You Go)” would have sounded like had the Jayhawks just let the music breathe.
Those deep breaths came three years later when the Jayhawks released Tomorrow the Green Grass, their second album on American. Under the guidance of producer George Drakoulias (the same producer from Hollywood) and sporting a slightly shifted lineup to include pianist/vocalist Karen Grotberg, it stood to be a perfect marriage of old and new for the Jayhawks. From the start with the moderately successful single “Blue”, you could tell that Green Grass was going to be a more vibrant album. “Miss Williams’ Guitar” sounded more recklessly southern, “Two Hearts” more fragilely quiet, and “Ten Little Kids” more goofy than anything from Hollywood — and it was an overall better album because of it. There was even room for a Grand Funk Railroad cover, “Bad Time”. The thirteen tracks on Tomorrow the Green Grass made it a more expansive package. If the band wasn’t about to go the distance towards something new, it at least felt like it had the capabilities.
Both albums are now appended with five additional tracks each, mostly made up of b-sides and things floating around on the foreign market. The five that expand Hollywood Town Hall contain an element of fun missing from the album. Southern kicker “Keith and Quentin”, in particular, shares a lot more with the Jayhawks’ Bunkhouse album, reminding the listener that they were more Mark Olson’s band than Gary Louris’ in those days. The feedback squall at the end of “Leave No Gold” is worth paying full price for the reissue alone.
The five tracks that round out Tomorrow the Green Grass are some seriously unrealized nuggets that could not have fit the parent album in any way (but hey, what’s a deluxe edition for, right?). A live recording of “Last Cigarette”, with whom I assume to be Karen Grotberg on lead vocals, is some very convincing honky-tonk. “You and I (Ba-Ba-Ba)” sounds pretty good, but has a number of awkward key changes. A hidden track buried in the back of the disc is a demo/rehearsal of “Blue” entitled “Blue from Now On”, which sounds like it was recorded inside of a tin can inside of a garage. The album’s rejected title track, in particular, bets its chips on a doofy bounce leading to a refrain that goes, “Tomorrow the green grass / Tomorrow the green grass / Tomorrow the green grass / Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Ah, so that’s why they left it off…
But the treasure trove for fans is Tomorrow the Green Grass‘s new companion disc, titled The Mystery Demos. Cobbled from 46 demo recordings intended for a variety of projects, someone went through a lot of trouble to prune it down to an 18-track CD. That’s not to say that it makes for a fantastic listening experience front to back. Demos are usually tools to help a songwriter keep track of his song, to help teach a band the songs, or to help a producer pick the best songs for a forthcoming project. Albums unto themselves, they are often not meant to be. The Mystery Demos is really no exception since it’s bare-bones from beginning to end, with Olson and Louris singing with their guitars, accompanied by a fiddle. But it shows the listener just how in tune Olson and Louris were during this time. Their harmony and balance are just so natural. There is an occasional botched harmony and undesirable guitar string buzz, but these are the things that make up the raw demo beloved by collectors. Plus, fans who enjoyed Ready for Flood will get to hear early renditions of “Turn Your Pretty Name Around”, “Cotton Dress”, and “Precious Time” (though only a handful of Tomorrow tracks are represented here). As an overall 72-minute listening experience, it can inadvertently become numbing. But it’s doubtful the songs’ authors expected them to be heard this way.
Such shortcomings are what fans have come to expect, and pay for, when it comes to special editions. These two albums helped spark alt-country as we know it, so why not get the warts-and-all rendition of the Jayhawks’ history? Hearing them in 2010 doesn’t really change anything; it just reminds us of the band’s strengths. The Jayhawks didn’t have the luxury of a “time” probably because their songs don’t belong to any particular time period. Take any of the 51 tracks from these three CDs, and they can be dropped conveniently into any of popular music’s last five decades. This is the staying power of the Jayhawks and why if you loved these albums before, you’ll still love them now. Maybe even more. And you can say in full smugness: “It was not lost on me.”