Desert Music: Victoria Williams & Mark Olson at Home in the Arid Wilderness

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Desert Music: Victoria Williams & Mark Olson at Home in the Arid Wilderness

paste01cover-75.jpg This story originally appeared in Issue #1 of Paste Magazine in the summer of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.

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In the town best known for lending its name to a U2 album and for Gram Parsons’ death, these two Creekdippers have found a place to live, write and do a little yard work.

Victoria Williams, a Louisiana native, and Mark Olson, a child of Minneapolis’ suburbs, are desert people. This was apparent the moment I arrived at their home in Joshua Tree, California.

After transecting the country by airplane and taking a rental car from Los Angeles, the desert seemed like another planet. In a land where nothing moved but the cars around me, I was mesmerized by the sudden and expansive forest of giant white windmills, like a sci-fi take on
Holland. I missed my turn.

Aided by locals, I soon found myself looking for the “first legitimate dirt road on the left” in accordance with directions given to me by the manager for Victoria Williams and Mark Olson. But the difference between a legitimate dirt road and a rough path between the cacti was far from clear. My second guess was rewarded when I saw Mark Olson, the primary Creekdipper, returning home from the open desert carrying two brown paper bags filled with treasures—clippings from cacti and other plants that he’ll cultivate.

He’s recently taken up landscaping to keep himself busy between records and touring, He pointed out the impressive needles and the variety of colors with enthusiasm. Landscaping as a vocation is new to the singer/songwriter, but the land around his house rises like an oasis out of the endless sand and dry shrubs beyond. Honeysuckle climbs all over one side of the house. A grove of trees provides shade. And thick, flowering bushes surround the natural pool he’s built. After 16 months of touring last year and releasing a new album this year, it’s obvious he doesn’t enjoy wasting his time, and he confessed that part of his difficulty playing with the Jayhawks was the empty time spent waiting around before concerts,

“When [Victoria and I] got married,” he said, “she brought me out here. We went up to a little cabin, and, boy, I liked it. I just felt really good. She brought me to this place with the most endless amount of chores, and I really took to it like a fish to water. I’d kind of been brought
up that way. I had two grandmas, and they kept me busy. When I was with the band, we’d do a lot of sitting around backstage, and no one kept me busy. So when I got out to the desert with Vic-whammo—it was like coming home again.”

Williams pedaled up on an old bicycle, said a brief hello, and headed to the pool to clean up. When she returned, she was anxious to show me her pets: three dogs, two donkeys and a little family of chickens. “He likes the plants, and I like the animals” she said.

The story of Mark Olson and Victoria Williams is, more than anything else, a love story. Before he founded the Jayhawks, before she married musician Peter Case and recorded ber
first album, Happy Come Homy, Mark fell in love with Victoria. In 1984 he saw her perform in Los Angeles, and (like many who’ve been to a Victoria Williams concert) Olson was captivated. He offered to carry her amplifier to her car, and they exchanged phone numbers.

“Vic had written these great songs at the time” Olson recounted. “I was still going to City College and I hadn’t really decided what the heck I was gonna do, like anybody. Vic’s three years older than me, so I didn’t really stand a chance with her at that point. I went back to Minnesota where I felt like I could get back in music a little more and find my way.”

But the two kept in touch, and Williams continued to visit Olson’s grandmother in Santa Monica. Olson never revealed his feelings. “I was in love with her,” he said, “and you can’t be in love with a married woman.”

Eventually his mother got on the phone with Williams and said, “You’re married now, and I don’t think you should be talking to him.”

In 1989, Williams and Case divorced. Three years later she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a degenerative neurological disorder. Around the time she and Olson reconnected, the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall was making critics’ top ten lists, and Sylvia Reed was recruiting artists, including her husband Lou Reed, Pearl Jam, Matthew Sweet and Soul Asylum for Sweet Relief, a Victoria Williams tribute to help pay her growing medical bills. The Jayhawks also contributed a track to the disc that propelled Williams further into the spotlight.

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Olson penned “Miss Williams Guitar” for the Jayhawks’ 1995 masterpiece Tomorrow the Green Grass in response to what he saw as crowds not appreciating the sublime beauty of her performances It would be just the first of many songs he’s written about Williams, who he married a year later.

“I love being married” he said. “Best thing that ever happened to me bar none. It really straightens you out. It enriches you.”

“I’m just sitting over here thinking, ‘boy, I’m not doing a very good job,”” Williams responded, laughing, “Look at him. He’s a ragamuffin. Well, that’s OK. We live in the desert.”

When Olson and Williams married seven years ago, he left the Jayhawks and formed the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers with Williams and fiddle player Mike “Razz” Russell.

“We’d just gotten married, and really like to be with Vic” Olson said, I wanted to have a new direction our life. I didn’t know what it was; I just knew I needed a new path. And it was scary because financially that was how I made my living for a long time in the Jayhawks I had to work up something new. But I would say that it’s good for anybody to change things in their
a couple times. I think it gives you renewed strength or energy.”

With that renewed energy, Olson decided to put the band’s first three albums out himself, doing everything from writing the songs to shipping the finished product directly to listeners. Each is tinged with the small-town simplicity and open spaces of their new home.

The freedom was refreshing, and he’s never been afraid of hard work. The ego deflations that come with music business, however, have occasionally been too much. When he asked by Buddy and Julie Miller play a Gram Parsons benefit concert in New York, he was assigned
Song he felt he couldn’t sing.

“I’m OK singing songs that I’ve written, but when I try to sing other people’s songs it’s usually falling flat my face in public—which is one the most embarrassing things that can happen. I went all the way New York in front of all these musicians I respected and Basically fell flat on my face. I was embarrassed. and I came home and said “That’s it, I’m getting a job.”

For six months, he worked for the public school system, playing music for a class of mentally handicapped children.

“I had actually written some songs there in the classroom because for two hours I would play music with them. We’d get these grooves and these rhythms going, and we’d start banging on stuff. I’d start singing something, and pretty soon I had a couple songs that l’d
worked up. I recorded a record, and went to South by Southwest, and the rest is history.

The record was My Own Jo Ellen, which Hightone released in 2000 to critical acclaim.

“I loved the job—I really did. You bring it home with you. You really think about those kids and
their walk in life. It’s a very difficult job and you have to be able to deal with some heavy duty stuff. You have to be aware of every kid in there and what every kid is doing. It’s intense, but they didn’t want me to take any time off.”

With Olson back to working full-time as a musician (and moonlighting in the garden), the latest Creekdippers record, December’s Child, was released on Dualtone Records this summer. Former Jayhawks bandmate Gary Louris drove out to Joshua Tree to join Olson on one of the songs, “Say You’ll Be Mine,” a banjo-tinged piece of alt.country heaven.

“That was kind of intense, he said of recording with Louris “We had a little bit of a tiff. We just went over some old baggage, so to speak. But we got that out of the way in a couple hours,
and we started writing songs the rest of the night. We came out with that one that we recorded the next day.”

Russell, a father of two, will sit this next tour out and the Creekdippers will be Olson, Williams, Josh Grange and Dave Wolfenberger. The band switches around often on stage with Wolfenberger moving from drums to bass and guitar, Grange moving from
pedal steel to bass, and everyone taking turns at the piano and singing. They’ll perform songs written by Olson, Wolfenberger and Williams.

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Williams has felt an urge to write since third grade when she filled cigar boxes with her written thoughts.

“One was labeled Life,” she said laughing. “An exposition on life. I mean, what could I have known? I don’t have them anymore, but they’re probably all the songs I’m still writing. I haven’t really grown since I was probably six. It’s the same stuff rehashed over and over.”

She taught herself how to play guitar in high school and got her first job performing at Fred Morgan’s Steak and Lobster in East Texas. When she turned 18, she left for Los Angeles.

” I was either going to go to New Orleans or California,” she said. “I found a Martin guitar at a pawnshop outside of Baton Rouge, and it didn’t seem like New Orleans was far enough so I had to keep going, so I went all the way out to California. I just had to get away from this guy, and I could never break up with him. So I ran away to California. That was a brave thing to do, but at the time it didn’t seem that brave.

When Williams and Case first separated, she began renting a cabin in the desert with her dog, Belle. For years, the one-room cabin served as a haven and a place to write music, but when she and Olson married, it quickly felt too small. They moved to their current house in Joshua Tree with a small studio building on the property.

”[Mark and I] have totally opposite working patterns in some regards,” she said. “It seems like I had this part of me that always has to be alone. I have to be alone to work. I go down to Lake Bistineau in Louisiana and write a lot. I’m trying to trick myself into realizing that I have my space. I can go into my studio and work.”

Her bout with MS seems to have somewhat stabilized, but the effects continue to linger. “Its going pretty good,” she said. “Ive been taking this shot every day now for nearly five years, and I think it’s helping. It doesn’t cure the disease, but it kind of stops it in its tracks so
it doesn’t get worse. I’ve kind of lost [a lot] from the earlier exacerbations before I started the drugs, and I never get that back.”

“She has a lot of things things that are going on with it,” Olson added, “but she doesn’t talk about it. She’s got a lot of courage. She can’t play guitar like she could when she was 20—she plays differently, but she doesn’t moan about it.”

While she’s become known as a songwriter as much as a performer, her latest project is an album of old standards, Sings Some Old Songs, releasing in August. In the past her albums have included beautiful interpretations of songs like “What a Wonderful World” and “Imagination.” This one includes “My Funny Valentine,” “Blue Skies,” “Moon River and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

While many of these standards were part of Williams’ childhood in Shreveport, La., so was exposure to the roots music of the South that gives her treatment of them a layer of interest.

“I grew up loving Guy Clark,” she said. “Mostly blues and country, and lots of gospel stuff.”

Her vocal style is unique, though when she did her impersonation of Tom Waits singing “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” I realized it wasn’t much of a stretch. Bringing a warmth and humanness to the works of writers like Irving Berlin, Henry Mancini and George Gershwin—songs that have become stale often popping up as TV ad jingles—has become a trademark.

“They are great songs,” she said.” You can do anything you want with them.”

Choosing for the most part not to wander far from the originals, she’s added a little pedal steel or Wurlitzer to more orchestral instruments. Though she speaks humbly about her hopes for a record of “old songs,” audiences have always responded well when they’ve been sprinkled into solo performances and Creekdippers concerts.

“We’ve done shows in Italy,” said Olson, “and older people come up to her afterwards and shout, ‘Bella, bella, bella!” They love those old songs!”

Both Olson and Williams admit a soft spot for older generations.

“People don’t want to deal with old people anymore,” Williams said. “When I was in Spain, I noticed all these old people out in this park that goes between the two boulevards there, taking their afternoon stroll during the siesta. I looked at their faces, and they looked so much like the same people that I’d see in nursing homes. They don’t have that much snap, and they’re very old, but they’re contended out there. They’re living with their family.”

“And that’s where they belong,” Olson agreed. “Old people belong with their families and not in nursing homes. That’s the thing that pisses me off the most about our culture. I hate that. My grandma died in her home, in her own bed with my aunt right there and I helped. Not at the very end, but in other years I did help. That’s our main drag. It embarrasses me.”

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Williams was glad to share other opinions on the general state of our nation and the world. The recent sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church spurred a phone call from Williams to the Governor’s office.

“I just said that repeated pedophile and sexual offenders should have their balls cut off,” she said without a trace of vindictiveness. “Because look at all the dogs running around without balls; they’re happy as can be and not causing any trouble. I mean, what is wrong with that? Everybody just acts like that’s the worst thing in the world. You’re not killing anyone, and you’re stopping those hormones from raging and wreaking havoc with their desires.”

She’s also an avid advocate of making use of America’s train system and becoming less reliant on gasoline, although she admitted the tracks need some repairs.

“I’ll go out there,” her husband offered. “Hell, I like to work on stuff like that.”

Mostly, though, both Williams and Olson are content with their world in Joshua Tree, writing songs and taking them on the road to share with others.

“You look at yourself and see you’ve got a hell of a lot of problems,” Olson said. “The only thing you can do is go out and try to reach out to other people. Vic and I, we play music, and hopefully that’s balancing the other things in my life that aren’t so great. Those are the the good times when we’re playing in front of people, and they’re getting outside of their lives. And maybe we haven’t slept for three days traveling, but it just doesn’t matter. Vic’s really giving on stage emotionally and spiritually, and I’m along for the ride. That’s why I got into this. I saw something in Vic, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

After watching her perform and spending a day in her presence, I feel like I understand what he’s talking about. It’s a mixture of frankness and naïveté—a childlike innocence coming from someone who’s seen her share of darkness that makes her music special. As I found my way back out through the dirt roads under an enormous desert sky overstuffed with stars, his latest love poem about her, the title track on December’s Child, came alive:

Never cried once in the dark
Never cried once when she could have
No one knows how my baby can sing
When she’s all by herself
She turns a song all her own