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The dual personae of the Jayhawks



The Jayhawks at the Book it to Iowa City Bash

Main stage (Clinton Street and Iowa Avenue) — Friday, July 27 at 8:15 p.m.

Photo by Heidi Ehalt
Photo by Heidi Ehalt

Note: This story was originally published before a 2016 Jayhawks performance at the Englert Theatre.

2016 marks 30 years since the release of the Jayhawks’ self-titled debut album. Formed in 1985, the band is often credited as being an early — if outsider — band in the genre once known as alternative country (today it’s called Americana), along with artists like Uncle Tupelo and fellow Minnesotans the Gear Daddies. The story of the Jayhawks is often overshadowed by the rocky relationship of two of its founding members, Gary Louris and Mark Olson — also the principal vocalists and songwriters. The latest album, Paging Mr. Proust, marks the latest change in the band’s lineup — the culmination of those decades of tension — and a change in sound.

The Jayhawks’ third album — and major label debut — Hollywood Town Hall (1992) gave the band its first widespread exposure. The album opener “Waiting For The Sun” would become their signature song, exhibiting the combined strength of the songwriting skills of Louris and Olson as well as their vocal harmonies — often compared to The Everly Brothers.

After 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, with the beautifully pining “Blue” pushed as a single, it seemed for a minute like the band was poised for widespread success. Then, Olson left for California abruptly at the end of 1995 to marry singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, leaving Louris and the band to fill any remaining obligations, and to soldier on.

From 1997 to 2003 Louris released three more albums under the Jayhawks name, with original bassist Marc Perlman and drummer Tim O’Reagan; keyboard player Karen Grotberg stayed on for the first two. These albums would be a marked departure from the established country rock sound of the previous four albums. In a 2015 interview with Kevin Cole for KEXP, Louris notes, “I didn’t grow up listening to country rock music.” These albums would be compared to the similarly-experimental albums by Wilco, a band at the time also moving away from their alternative country roots, but they didn’t enjoy the same recognition.

Louris took a step away from the Jayhawks name for his first solo album in 2008, titled Vagabonds. Recorded in Laurel Canyon with Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, the album’s sound echoes the low-key vibe the area was known for in the seventies. Robinson was tapped again for the Louris and Olson reunion album in 2009. Titled Ready for the Flood, it recalled the strengths of the vocal harmonies and the songwriting of the two, but lacked the punch of the Jayhawks. The live shows in support of the album showed a familiar Louris and Olson taking playful jabs at each other, but at the same time seeming a little cautious. It was this collaboration that opened the door for the reunion of the Green Grass lineup of the Jayhawks, bringing Perlman, O’Reagan and Grotberg back into the fold. In 2011 that lineup of the Jayhawks released Mockingbird Time and toured in support of it, to the delight of fans everywhere.

Being a fan of the Jayhawks is as complicated as the history of the band. Kim Schultz, a longtime fan and member of an internet forum dedicated to the band, spoke to me about the debate that exists in the fanbase. “Fans have divided since Sound of Lies,” she said, referring to the first album without Olson, “over which is the ‘better’ era, sometimes pitting the two guys against each other as artists (ugh) and that topic has been so beaten up!” Aside from those disagreements, she believes most fans agree at least that the union of Louris and Olson resulted in a canon of music greater than the two have achieved individually.

But their reunion was not to last. Olson left the band again in 2012, citing personal differences as well as band business; one contributing factor was Louris’ addiction to painkillers, which he sought treatment for. When Louris returned to work on his next album, he chose to work again with the Jayhawks minus Olson.

When asked via email why he chose to record another Jayhawks album instead of pursuing more solo work, Louris told me, “I think it took me getting clean and sober to appreciate what I had, which included the Jayhawks. In the back of my mind I thought that I could find someone new to help me explore new territory but that was the old me talking … always thinking the grass was greener somewhere else or with someone else. But I realized after some time that the only person holding me back was myself … maybe I was the weak link in the band!”

Indeed, with the Jayhawks’ 9th studio album, Paging Mr. Proust, we find Louris collaborating with the band more than with any previous effort. Three of the songs on the album are whole band co-writes. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone Country he compared their vocal work to Fleetwood Mac, adding, “I had a mission to feature the fact that we have three good vocalists in the band … It makes it less of an Everly Brothers thing, with two guys in front, and more of a communal sound.”

If you don’t get hung up on whether it’s a “real” Jayhawks record, its merits stand on their own — it’s remarkably strong. Transcendent and timeless songs are packed with melodic hooks and a palate of sound wider than I would have given them credit for previously. Without Olson, the band returns to a dramatically less country sound, continuing the arc of the previous three records without him — a kind of retro power pop album at times, a little sixties psychedelia and some R&B. The album shows Louris growing as a lyricist and composer and, in doing so, he’s redefining the sound of the Jayhawks yet again.

Mike Roeder remembers the summer of 1993 as one that, aside from the widespread flooding, was carefree. One where he hung out with friends, drinking a lot of beer and listening to a soundtrack that included the Jayhawks’ ‘Hollywood Town Hall.’ This article was originally published in Little Village issue 199.


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