Remain Happy Ever After: A Conversation with the Jayhawks' Mark Olson

L to R: Marc Perlman, Karen Grotberg, Mark Olson, Gary Louris & Tim O’Reagan. Photo © Steven Cohen.

Reunited with the Jayhawks after 16 years, Mark Olson couldn't be happier. On the eve of their first tour together since his departure, Olson chats with PopMatters about influences, quitting the band, and the mystery that is life unfolding.

Your words hung high in the rafters

And settled down like rain

Remain happy ever after

Happy ever after

-- "Settled Down Like Rain", Hollywood Town Hall (1992)

Shortly after the tour behind the Jayhawks’ 1995 album Tomorrow the Green Grass, co-leader Mark Olson quit the band. He had had enough. Enough of the touring, the studio hassles, the pressure from executives. But, mostly, he had had enough of the disappointment that comes when you craft a heartfelt piece of work which stubbornly refuses to find commercial success. Four excellent records into a decade-plus-long career, and Olson felt like he just couldn’t keep this train moving any longer. As he recalls today, “it wasn’t a joyous ride, man.”

Olson’s band would continue on, helmed by his longtime co-conspirator Gary Louris, a gifted pop singer-songwriter and melodious lead guitarist. Under his direction, they would craft two very good, and one great, Jayhawks records before disbanding in the mid-2000s having never achieved the success that most of their listeners believed was owed them. But, even during this frequently rewarding period, most of those same listeners harbored lingering the belief that the band had been irretrievably diminished by the departure of Mark Olson. His humble vocals, cryptic lyrics, and Gram Parsons-conjuring acid-country feel had slipped away with him down to his new home in Joshua Tree, California (literally across the highway from the motel where Parsons took his final hit).

I went down there to meet him and his then-wife Victoria Williams back in 2000, and was struck by the simplicity of his life in the desert. They had a few animals, donkeys and chickens, and a wide and dusty view of endless hilly sand. They also had a home studio, and they recorded spare, ramshackle records right in their living room (most of which would be released under the moniker Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, to scant public notice, despite the fact that they are simply wonderful folk records). I recall his telling me that they taped some vocals in the bathroom. Special effects, man.

By the mid-2000s, following the demise of the latter-day Jayhawks, Louris and Olson began to collaborate again. Olson’s marriage was breaking up, and Louris was looking to try his songs in new settings. (He would also record a beautiful if slightly uneven solo album, Vagabonds, in 2008.) They began to run through the old numbers, try their hand at writing new material as a duo, and even dust off some old tracks that they had been considering for the post-Green Grass album that never was. The result was the simple, folky, and highly welcome 2008 Ready for the Flood, recorded mostly as an acoustic duo, and sounding for all the world like a raft of great but forgotten demos circa 1995.

In reality, just such an animal actually existed: the so-called Mystery Demos, culled from two early '90s sessions, had been floating around the internet since the early 2000s. Now that Gary and Mark were back together, playing, writing, and sounding as good as ever, it seemed time to take a look at that stuff, and think about making it available to the general public. Thanks to the folks at Sony, that’s just what we got this past week, as both Hollywood Town Hall, the Jayhawks 1992 masterpiece (among the very best records of the decade says this reviewer), and its tremendous 1995 follow-up Tomorrow The Green Grass have been reissued with all the b-sides included. On top of this, the latter release comes with a second disc comprised of about 40% of the so-called Mystery Demos. It’s a treasure trove for fans and neophytes alike. But, good as this was, nothing made fans more happy than when they heard that the Jayhawks were getting back together in the same classic lineup that toured Tomorrow the Green Grass: Louris, Olson, Marc Perlman, Karen Grotberg, and Tim O’Reagan. A new album is on the way. The Jayhawks are back.

As the reconstructed band prepared to open a short tour in support of the new material, I caught up with Olson at his hotel in mid-town Toronto. A warm, generous, and thoughtful guy, Olson was plainly brimming with excitement on the eve of his first bona fide tour with the old band in 15 years.

You know, this neighbourhood you’re staying in is called Yorkville. It was the Haight-Ashbury of Canada in the '60s, the centre of the folk music scene and hangout for the hip kids. Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn…

Then they must’ve torn it all down! I played in a club just last year in Boston where Joan Baez got her start. I forget the name of it but it’s still there. It’s been in Cambridge all these years. It’s just this little tiny place, but that’s where it all started, those little cafes.

What about you, that how you guys got started, as folkies?

I mean definitely, all the songs were written with acoustic guitars. And Gary [Louris] and I would work on the songs with two acoustic guitars. So we could sing them that way and they sounded nice -- that’s why we ended up putting out the “Mark and Gary record” later on [Ready for the Flood (2008)]: because we enjoyed writing songs that way, and we wanted people to hear how they sounded when we first wrote them. That was part of it. And taking it to the band completely changed them, but they still had those roots.

We definitely sat and listened to so many groups. The Band. Joni Mitchell. Neil Young. And we wanted to try to write songs that were as good as theirs. But, I mean, come on. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”? Very difficult to write a song that good. But we tried. And, now we’re down the road a bit and people still want to hear these songs. They’ve lasted, at least a little bit.

Why, if your songs were that good, didn’t you guys ever break?

I don’t know. There was a lot of violence in the music [at the time, the early 1990s]. It’s the only way I can put it. If you were to put on a lot of records from when we were around, and that were really popular, like when Lollapalooza and all these things were going on, there was a certain amount of violence, glorification of drugs, and self destruction underlying these things, and our songs weren’t anything about that. So, you put us up against groups that are drawing thousands and thousands of people, and here come the Jayhawks, and it’s like: it didn’t really work with those people. That was an overarching youth movement at the time.

Sounds pretty bleak.

I’ll put it to you that, ah, it wasn’t so much fun, really. It wasn’t a joyous ride, man! [Here, Olson laughs. Hard.]

Well, I mean, you did quit after all.

That had to do with: I’d been in the band for quite a while. I’d just got married. I found a house down in Joshua Tree. And, I wanted to try something else with my life. I felt like we’d given it 100% on those two records, and we’d landed where we’d landed. And those guys wanted to go on, and I wanted to stop. And they went on.

You’d been together by then, what, ten years?

It was over ten years. Playing in Minneapolis in the bars. For years and years and years. Drove around in a van to a couple of different cities, New York, Chicago. With no success whatsoever. So we had done that. I had been, from day one, in it 110%. But I just reached a point… you know, that happens to people.

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