Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Way back in the late-‘80s & early-‘90s, when I was in my early- to mid-20s, I was still a loyal MTV viewer and I never missed an episode of MTV News (usually hosted by Kurt Loder). Each show featured a segment on new albums released that week, usually including a snippet of music from every release. Most of the time I was already aware of the artists/albums being highlighted, but one time in 1992 I heard a brief sample of a song by a band I had never heard of…The Jayhawks…and in less than 10 seconds I knew I needed to hear more. If my memory is correct, the song was “Waiting For The Sun” from their third album (but first on a major label), Hollywood Town Hall. Within a week I bought the album and was blown away by what I heard from this Minnesota-based group. Combining elements of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, REM, Neil Young, The Byrds & The Eagles as well as several artists I wasn’t familiar with yet (most notably Gram Parsons), they wrote instantly memorable songs that only got better with each successive listen, but the thing that set them apart from all of the aforementioned artists, as well as their contemporaries, was the one-of-a-kind harmonies of their two songwriters: Mark Olson (acoustic rhythm guitar) and Gary Louris (electric lead guitar). A few years later they released a follow-up, Tomorrow The Green Grass, which was every bit as strong as its predecessor but also distinctly different in several ways (mostly the addition of female vocals, piano & organ courtesy of Karen Grotberg).
With these two albums I had found a new favorite band, and even though I wasn’t as impressed with their earlier album Blue Earth, which I bought around that same time, I eagerly awaited anything new they would release. Then it was announced that Olson had left the band and I couldn’t imagine how they could continue without him. Much as Louris had become the main focal point in The Jayhawks (for his distinctive voice as well as his impressive guitar chops), and I immediately fell for his “supergroup” side project Golden Smog (also featuring members of Wilco & Soul Asylum), the idea of The Jayhawks fronted solely by Louris didn’t appeal to me. I still don’t understand why, but when they released their first Olson-less album, Sound Of Lies, in 1997 I never fully embraced it. The same holds true for their next two albums…I like them all but have never gotten to know them like I did with Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass. Even when Olson & Louris reunited for tours in the mid-‘00s, eventually resulting in an album of new songs (and the eventual reformation of The Jayhawks), I’ve kept up with their music but never with the same passion I had those first few years after discovering them. And that’s where this blog series comes in. I usually try to avoid writing about artists I know well because the purpose of the blog is to re-discover the lesser-played artists in my collection, but I realized that I’m only deeply familiar with two of their nine albums (counting the Olson-Louris duo album). Over the next few weeks I’m looking forward to spending time with their catalog as I get acquainted (or reacquainted) with each album. This past week I gave each of their first two albums a lot of playing time, and that’s where I’ll begin my discussion on their discography.
For years their debut album The Jayhawks (aka The Bunkhouse Album) (1986) was unavailable, only heard by the small group of local fans who bought the original pressing on an independent label founded by their manager, Charlie Pine (who also produced the record). Then in 2010 it was reissued by roots/Americana label Lost Highway, with liner notes by Olson praising Pine’s contributions to the band’s early years. At this point they were more focused on Olson, who wrote all the songs (Louris is credited as co-writer on 3 of the 13 tracks) and sang lead throughout the album. Mining similar musical territory to their contemporaries Uncle Tupelo (whose brief but influential catalog I revisited & wrote about here), this is a collection of straight-up country & country-based rock songs that’s more than simply the formative years of a band that would go on to greater things. There may not be a whole lot of originality, but they make up for that with solid songwriting, tight arrangements & those inimitable Olson/Louris harmonies. Album opener “Falling Star” is a bright, bouncy country tune with steel guitar and a great harmony-laden chorus: “You keep your distance, I’ll keep mine.” Louris is already showing off his impressive six-string skills on “Tried And True,” which features a nice arrangement and an excellent hook at “tried & true love.” “Let The Critics Wonder” is a super catchy, jangly country-pop tune with lively lead vocals and a distinct REM/Byrds vibe.
“Let The Last Night Be The Longest (Lonesome Memory)” is one of the strongest songs here, with a chugging train rhythm (a la Johnny Cash) and an awesome chorus (“Westbound train is leaving, darling can’t you see?”). “Cherry Pie” is more of a rave-up in the same vein as all those classic ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll recordings on Sun Records. It’s peppy & fun, making its point in just over 2 minutes. “The Liquor Store Came First” is a George Jones-style weeper that may not be original but features strong harmonies & pretty steel guitar. I love the sentiment of “the liquor store came first and poured my money down the drain.” “Misery Tavern” has classic country lyrics (“I’ll sober up long enough to find my way back in, Misery Tavern, it’s the only place I know”) set to a walking bass line and lovely lead guitar filigrees during the verses.
“King Of Kings” is the song that had the strongest impact the first time I played the record, and it continues to be my favorite. Recalling the melody from Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” there’s a cool shift in the verses at “Headlines to the west, skylines falling down” and a bright chorus (“People getting ready…to meet the King of Kings”) that could almost pass for gospel. “Good Long Time” has a super-fast train-like rhythm and the bouncy, fun choruses (“It’s been a good long time & now I’m long gone…and still this heartache lingers on”) might be the strongest part. There are no clunkers among the songs I haven’t mentioned, but nothing inspiring about them either. Otherwise, it was nice to become familiar with a record that’s probably considered a footnote by many fans but deserves to find a wider audience. They would go on to better things, but it’s obvious that there was something special about them right from the start.
I’ve always thought that Blue Earth (1989) felt a bit lifeless, even though it features a number of excellent songs, and now I know why. Instead of this being a full-on studio album, it’s actually comprised of demos recorded after the release of the debut album, with Louris (who briefly left the band following a serious car accident) adding lead guitar to the tracks, and was released by Minneapolis label Twin/Tone Records. Bookending the album are two songs, “Two Angels” and “Martin’s Song,” that would later appear in much stronger versions on their major label debut. The former has some nice melancholy harmonica from Olson, and the Olson/Louris harmonies are in full force, but it lacks the punch they would bring to the later recording and it seems to drag a bit. The latter builds slowly from acoustic guitar & a metronomic beat to a peppier chorus (“I been working all night, I go long into the day…”), and Louris adds some tasty flourishes throughout. I love the slowly loping rhythm, prominent bass & high lonesome harmonica in “Will I Be Married,” which also features a lilting melody at “Will I be married, first girl I see coming down the road?” I feel like I’ve heard that chorus melody in a later Jayhawks song, but I can’t put my finger on it. Perhaps I’ll figure it out as I get deeper into their catalog.
[The Jayhawks – “Dead End Angel”]
“Dead End Angel” has the Bakersfield sound popularized by Buck Owens & Merle Haggard (and, later, by Dwight Yoakam). I like how the tight little plucky guitar figure in the intro carries over into the verse (“Go to sleep my dead end angel”), and the repeated refrain of “And all the police carry guns” is a killer hook. “Ain’t No End” is a slow, sparse, Neil Young-ish song with Louris taking on lead vocals in the first verse & chorus (“Oh Lord…there ain’t no end”), and also brought to mind the Bee Gees song, “To Love Somebody.” It was co-written by Olson & Louris with bass player Marc Perlman. I haven’t mentioned Perlman yet since there are no particular stand-out bass performances, but he constantly provides a solid anchor along with the two drummers featured on these albums (Norm Rogers & Thad Spencer), and he’s the only musician besides Louris to appear on every Jayhawks album. “Red Firecracker” takes on the sludgier side of Neil Young, with distorted guitar, stomping drums and an overall heavier feel. The verses are stronger than the choruses, but the strengths of the song lie in Louris’ brilliant guitar work & those harmonized lead vocals. “Sioux City” is a predictable (in a good way) country-rock song with more stellar guitar playing and a nice, simple chorus (“Please don’t bring to life, this dark & dingy room, Sioux City, here tonight”). Of the remaining songs, only a couple are worth noting. “She’s Not Alone Anymore” isn’t far from early REM if they were an alt-country band, and the lyrics “hitchhiked back from Blue Earth” gave the album its title. “Commonplace Streets” goes on too long & the melodies never really stick, but I like the subtle, intricate drumming (with hints of Steve Gadd’s work on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”).
Although Blue Earth isn’t a great record, it captured enough of their distinctive sound to point the way towards their brighter future. All it took was a fortuitous phone call between two record labels to change the band’s fortunes, and that’s where I’ll pick up the story in my next post. I’m very excited to revisit the next two albums; a rare instance where I’m already familiar with the music I’ll be writing about in advance. Whether you’re an existing fan or if they’ve previously slipped under your musical radar, I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Jayhawks and, more specifically, the early years covered here. Thanks.