The Jayhawks: Flying Together

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With their classic lineup together again and a new album, the hardest-working band in alt-country comes back soaring.

Mark Olson is working a double shift tonight. Not only is The Jayhawks’ co-founder playing with his band tonight for a sold-out crowd at the Academy 2 in Manchester, England, but he’s also the opening act. Olson and Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Ingunn Ringvold kick things off with no-frills folk (the duo only work with four instruments—guitar, djembe, dulcimer and harmonium—so they can travel light). While they set up for a number which involves a travel harmonium, Olson recalls the words of the music-shop owner who sold them the instrument: “It is Ryanair ready. I made this one especially for Ryanair.”

It’s a joke that goes over well with this crowd. The reference to the Irish low-cost airline notorious for its almost-Draconian luggage policy resonates with many a UK traveler, and an appreciative laugh ripples across the concert hall. It’s a joke that speaks quite a bit about The Jayhawks’ career too, in a way—most rock bands with more than 25 years of history, critical acclaim and an ever-growing international fan-base probably don’t crack many jokes about the finer points of budget travel.

But it’s more than Olson’s sense of humor that keep European crowds like this one—a multi-generational sea with some out-of-town concertgoers, from what the ears could pick up, making the trek from Yorkshire and Wales—coming to see the band. The previous nights: packed shows in similar concert halls in Birmingham and Glasgow. It’s been 15 years since the lineup that toured behind their 1995 classic Tomorrow the Green Grass (co-founders Gary Louris and Olson on guitar and vocals, Marc Perlman on bass, Tim O’Reagan on drums and Karen Grotberg on piano) went back out on the road, and excitement for the reunion and the accompanying new studio album Mockingbird Time has spread across the pond; it’s clear the old songs still resonate with their international fans.

“They really know us,” Louris says. “It’s not that they just do in the States, it really carries over and these people who listen, it’s beautiful music to them. People will say to us, ‘My son and I listen to these songs together.’”

The Jayhawks’ rise was never a meteoric one, rather a slow, steady stoking of the coals. They’ve reformed and reworked and persevered through all kinds of struggles and shake-ups, including medical emergencies (Louris’ near-fatal 1988 car crash and bout with pericarditis in 2003), major personnel shifts including a roster of drummers to rival Spinal Tap’s and their records going out of print, which led to the 2009 anthology project, Music From the North Country. Even the critics needed some warming up: Louris recalls the first Minneapolis Daily Star review of one of their shows, which called them “rough and ragged.” Later, the critics got on board, but the fans were still missing: a New York Times review of their 2000 album, Smile, came with the headline, “What If You Made a Classic, and No One Cared?”

“We were definitely a band that no one told us we were that great for the first 15 years,” Olson says. But as the lack of widespread recognition has become a common thread in The Jayhawks’ narrative, so has the band’s persistence and motivation to write and record the best music they can.

“When we were playing around Minneapolis those first—it really took us 10 years to get started—we weren’t anywhere near the most popular band,” Olson says. “We were in the middle somewhere. So after all these years, we’re still out playing and those songs have lasted, and that’s what makes me feel that we did something good with ourselves.”

The first incarnation of The Jayhawks (Louris, Olson, Perlman and drummer Norm Rogers) formed in Minneapolis in 1985, the same year that Tipper Gore testified before a Senate panel and launched a crusade against explicit lyrics in pop music after hearing the work of another local musical icon—Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” A diverse, dynamic and provocative music scene made the Twin Cities a cultural force for all kinds, but in 1985, punk and alternative were the reigning forces, thanks to an explosion of bands, notable clubs like First Avenue and 7th Street Entry, and a DIY ethic marked by zines like Your Flesh. That was the year the Replacements released Tim. Hüsker Dü released New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig. It would probably be fair to say that a sizable percentage of Twin Citizens in the 18-to-35 demographic at the time were in some kind of band, or wanted to be.

The founding Jayhawks were active in the local music scene, playing in bands with those fantastic garage kind of names appearing on hand-drawn, mass-printed club flyers: The Neglecters, Schnauzer, Safety Last, Stagger Lee. But even though The Jayhawks were operating in the same spaces as the punk icons du jour (First Avenue, the now-defunct Uptown Bar), the music they were playing was quite a bit different. In a promotional video for Mockingbird Time, Louris described the band as being “old souls.” Even their name was an homage to an earlier generation of music and a different Minnesota musical icon, a reference to “The Hawks,” Bob Dylan’s backing band who later made rock history as The Band.

“We were not really ever this super punk-rock band, and like, ‘Fuck your parents and screw this,’” he explains. “We’re kind of traditionalists, you know what I mean? We were kind of, in a certain way, not purists, but our music was not punk rock. I think we were playing pretty mature music even in our twenties and thirties.”

While other bands of the era looked to youth and the future (or lack thereof) for inspiration, Olson, Louris and The Jayhawks looked to the generations that came before them. Olson says he was inspired by the virtuosity and ageless, emotionally resonant qualities of country and folk classics like Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”

“All these songs, you knew that they meant something and you had them in your heart, in a way,” Olson says. “We were trying to do that, and that didn’t happen on Day One. We worked on that first record, and then we got on the second record and we just kind of kept working towards that goal.”

Olson says the first “a-ha” moment happened while recording “Two Angels,” the opening track off of 1989’s Blue Earth. “When we start singing together over the minor chords, that was the first part that moves away from that traditional country kind of thing, the major chord, country-ish kind of thing,” he says. “We started to do something different.”

What happened after Blue Earth was one of those stories of great luck only rock ’n’ roll mythology can offer. George Drakoulias, A&R rep for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, heard the album by coincidence while on a conference call to Minnesota indie Twin/Tone. He took a shine to the group’s soulful, No Depression-based approach and signed them. The first two albums The Jayhawks recorded for American, 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, became alt-country classics, and the lustrous barroom sway-along single “Blue” off the latter album became the group’s biggest hit, making the Top 40 charts in Canada.

Shortly after the Tomorrow the Green Grass tour, Olson left the band. The departure was amicable, but sad for everyone—after 10 years of nonstop commitment to The Jayhawks, he had just hit a wall. So he moved to California, got a job in home repair and began recording and touring with a folk-Americana ensemble called The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, along with his wife, singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, the inspiration for The Jayhawks’ “Miss Williams’ Guitar” (the two divorced in 2006).

“I spent all the years in Minneapolis living in tiny apartments and working this job I had at this school, but always, always being involved in music, going to bars and that sort of thing,” he says. “But when I moved to California and lived in the desert, I didn’t do that anymore. I worked outside and fixed up these run-down houses. I just totally changed inside for the next 10 years and went around and toured in Europe on trains and had the Creekdippers, the folk band. I just became a different person. The Minnesota life for me, at a certain point, I just had to stop. I had to move. I had to start over. And that’s about it. I think everyone in their life, at some point, they get to a point where they feel like they have to try again.”

The Jayhawks went on to release three more albums without Olson, including the New York Times-lauded Smile and the folky Rainy Day Music, before the band declared a hiatus in 2005. There was never a moment when the idea of a Jayhawks reunion clicked for everyone—Louris and Olson had been touring together on and off since 2001 and released an album together, the Chris Robinson-produced Ready For the Flood, and toured extensively on the album in 2009. In September of that year, at the urging of the group’s longtime friend and promoter in Spain, the Tomorrow the Green Grass-era lineup reunited for the first time for a one-off show at the Azkena Rock Festival in Vitoria. But even that wasn’t the beginning.

“For years, he was asking me and I said, ‘You know, I don’t see Karen touring and I don’t know if Mark wants to,’” Louris says. “It didn’t seem realistic and then all of the sudden the stars kind of aligned and we played that show. And then it wasn’t like right after that, we said, ‘Let’s get the band together.’”

The group played several more reunion shows in Europe the following year, but the real impetus for a reunion came after Louris spent some time sorting through the old hits for Music For the North Country, the Jayhawks anthology that was released in 2009. Louris says the process of compiling the anthology began while he was helping to curate a ‘best-of’ record for one of his other groups, country-rock supergroup Golden Smog (whose other members included at various points Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Soul Asylum’s Dan Murphy, The Replacements’ Chris Mars, Big Star’s Jody Stephens and fellow Jayhawk Marc Perlman).

“I was doing it, and realized there’s nothing like this for the band that’s really been the center of our lives,” he says. Louris called on Rick Rubin, whose American Recordings label released five of The Jayhawks’ eight studio albums, and proposed a ‘best-of’ or anthology project for the band. He says Rubin was “very agreeable about the whole thing,” did some research and found most of the band’s records had been out of print for a very long time.

Louris, the self-proclaimed archivist of the group, keeps everything. Every rehearsal cassette, every poster. To help compile the anthology, he enlisted the help of a trusted source: writer P.D. Larson, a longtime fan who attended The Jayhawks’ first show. Larson sorted through the boxes of Jayhawks musical ephemera Louris gave him with the help of Sony’s John Jackson. Louris says he enjoyed watching the “librarian” in Larson come out in his meticulous annotations of rarities and B-sides. His enthusiasm for the band makes him the ideal candidate for a project like this, as he refers to their original sound as “wild, Woody-Guthrie-on-speed” and laments the lack of proper recognition he feels the band deserves: “In a perfect world, The Jayhawks would have become the ‘big stars’ Louris wrote about with palpable bitterness on the song of the same name on Sound of Lies; lord knows, they richly deserved it. The music business, however, is neither a meritocracy nor anything resembling perfect—a quick glance at the current pop charts will confirm that.”

A flood of reissues followed: Lost Highway remastered the group’s self-titled 1986 debut, affectionately known as The Bunkhouse Tapes, the following year; followed by limited-edition re-releases of Hollywood Town Hall (with liner notes from Drakoulias) and Tomorrow the Green Grass earlier this year. With Tomorrow the Green Grass, the band released an additional album with selections from the Mystery Demos, a series of 50-something rare outtakes and alternate recordings from the Hollywood Town Hall and Green Grass sessions. (One song from the Mystery Demos, “Black-Eyed Susan,” was reworked and included on Mockingbird Time.)

A small American tour followed the reissues, including two nights at New York City’s Webster Hall where the band played Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass in their entirety. After band and fans alike began rediscovering the music, the band saw, as Louris put it, a window, an opportunity to catch an entire generation of music lovers who may not have experienced The Jayhawks the first time around. And then they decided to do an album.

“People were always coming over to us after our acoustic shows and saying, ‘Oh, I love your show, I love your show. When’s the band getting back together?’ Every night. And I thought, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it now.’ And I think we were all a little bit skeptical, but things have worked out really well. We’re enjoying it more each night.”

The Jayhawks’ new album, Mockingbird Time, could be seen as something of a spiritual successor to Tomorrow the Green Grass—not a mirror or an attempt to replicate past successes, but a progression with the 1995 work as a jumping-off point. Louris says he pitched the idea for the new album as an opportunity to pick up where the band left off after Olson’s departure.

“We have all the same people, but we’ve been through all different things,” he says. “We’ve had different experiences, influences now, and we’re not just going to take a time machine back to 1995 or whatever. So it was kind of an extension of what we’ve been doing, but it’s not like we’re trying to replicate something. We just naturally play music and that’s what I’m proud about. When Mark and I write, we don’t think, ‘What’s going to get on the radio?’ or ‘What are people going to like?’ We just go, ‘I like that, do you like that?’ And that’s how it always works. We write what we like and we trust each other’s judgments.”

The logistics of writing and recording the album came with a few challenges. The band had spent so much time apart and were no longer a “working band,” so the lack of a consistent schedule or practice space became an issue. Olson was touring on his solo record, so meeting to write the music was a “catch-as-catch-can” process. But during the summer of 2010, the songwriters were able to meet several times in Minnesota and once out in Joshua Tree to write new material.

As for the matter of the practice space, the band had to worry about agitating the neighbors. “Our pre-production was very limited,” Louris says. “I was living in an apartment at the time, playing the songs acoustically, very quietly, with Tim on a little kick and a snare and brushes. The first time we really recorded them with a full kit, it was the first time we’d heard them with a full kit and electric guitars in the studio. So we really developed the songs and the band in the studio so we used the studio as our practice space, too.”

Olson and Louris are fans of using the word “proud” when discussing the content on Mockingbird Time, particularly when discussing the collaborative DIY effort that went into the songs. And so far, their efforts seem to be working well with the fans: Louris says the new tracks they’ve tested at shows have gone over well and are starting to feel like Jayhawks songs.

“Sometimes, there’s one song I think is a little shocking to them and then they’re like, ‘Where’s our old Jayhawks?’ but then they get excited,” he says. The track, “High Water Blues,” a raucous guitar stomper where the ’Hawks “just kind of go nuts,” was made up on the spot and features multiple movements and a nice fuzz-tinged freakout about two-thirds of the way through.

Although The Jayhawks’ reunion is the priority, the band have found a few side projects to work on. Olson has his folk duo with Ingunn Ringvold, and Louris recently collaborated with Jakob Dylan on “Gonna Be A Darkness,” a track for the third soundtrack to the HBO series True Blood.

On stage, in front of the sold-out crowd at the Academy 2, The Jayhawks become their songs, all 25 years’ worth and counting. They rarely stop to banter with the audience, but gazes are met, nods are given, shoutouts are made and one gentleman from North Wales called Dan is referenced several times. Their stage presences are different, but radiate just the same: Louris keeps his feet planted and lets the energy fly from his vocals and fingers (and his neck muscles, sometimes), while Olson is constantly moving, checking in with his other bandmates and traversing the stage like an excitable scientist waiting to see if his experiment works.

From the first chorus of “Wichita” to the end of the set, when he sees the crowd dancing and singing along to songs the band wrote years ago—including standards like “Pray For Me,” “Miss Williams’ Guitar” and “Blue,” which probably gets the most ecstatic reaction from the audience—Olson can’t help but light up and crack a massive grin.

“That, to me, is really exciting,” he says. “I didn’t experience that when I was in the band. When I was in the band, we were trying to get an audience that would know these songs. And we played so many shows where people didn’t know the songs. And it’s a whole different world when they know these songs now.”

Olson says he hopes the tour continues for another year. “Let’s see how far it can go,” he says. “The record isn’t even out yet, so it’s like, this is all gravy right now. We don’t even have our record out and the shows are going so good.”

“High Water Blues” is placed at the tail end of the encore that night and Louris’ description is proved accurate: the band “just kind of goes nuts.” All five Jayhawks appear to be having the time of their lives, and the crowd—a bit bewildered at first, but then ecstatic—is too. He was right: they are starting to sound like Jayhawks songs.

At the end of the liner notes for Music From the North Country, P.D. Larson addressed the possibility of a Jayhawks reunion and new music, then still an ambiguous notion. “Only time will tell if The Jayhawks will rise again and reclaim their title as a living, breathing musical treasure,” he wrote, and his enthusiasm over the possibility is detectable in his words. Turns out, not only did Larson’s wish come true, but it looks like this may be a whole new beginning.