Like a garrulous old friend who’s back in your life, full of tales to tell of life lived for better or worse, The Jayhawks, with all but one of the original members, returned after 15 years with a new record, Mockingbird Time. No news to readers of No Depression, but they recently made a few stops in NYC. The new Gary Louris/Mark Olson songs have the customary harmony that balances open-handed sincerity and poetic allusion, and set to loping, comfortable melodies that seem familiar until a lyrical or musical sidestep catches your ear. I have three Mockingbird Time tracks on constant Spotify rotation – “Closer to Your Side,” “Tiny Arrows,” and “She Walks in So Many Ways” – and they’ll end up permanent fixtures. You can stream the whole album at Rolling Stone’s site.
Those songs illustrate an interesting point that came up in their appearance at WNYC’s Greene Space (streaming video of the whole show here). Host John Schaefer referred a few times to The Jayhawks as alt-country or Americana pioneers. Gary and Mark instead pointed to their influences being The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, Dylan, British folk of the 60s… before discovering country rock via the Byrds and tracing the history backwards. In other words, the pop/rock/folk musical journey of most of us raised within shouting distance of the 60s. If you wanted to play music you had to get up, over or around those musical mountains. Yes, there are acoustic guitars, occasional slide or pedal steel, perhaps a harmonica, especially in the early records. But alt-country? I hear straightforward, well-crafted rock music in the key of Neil Young. Gary responded to Schaefer’s question re the Americana tag by saying that they just “sound wide open.” Sounds exactly right. But the alt-country reference might have been inevitable given that, when they formed in 1985, The Jayhawks found a generally rural sound while their Minneapolis contemporaries made tightly-wound, blistering punk like Husker Du, shambling bar punk like The Replacements, or smartass postpunk like Art in America or The Suburbs.
At dinner after the WNYC show with Mark and his wife Ingunn (who has a new record coming soon as Sailorine), pianist Karen Grotberg, director Ray Foley and painter Kim Uchiyama, we talked for a while about the origins of country rock. Mark knows his country-rock history and we swapped late-60s L.A. country obscurities, but it’s clear that eventually alt-country became a box. Mark has wide-ranging interests and that includes in music: we also talked about baroque opera and his recorder playing. The lyrical sophistication that lifts the new Jayhawks work from the run of the Americana mill comes from a complex emotional place that lurks under the observations of daily life (as with the songs on the Olson and Louris duo record Ready for the Flood that augured the Jayhawks reunion). For a sense of that complexity, watch Ray’s documentary The Salvation Blues (streaming on The Documentary Channel). As it follows Mark’s return to the U.S. after making his acclaimed solo record Salvation Blues, it offers an honest, hopeful portrait of a man coming to grips with darker days and finding a road back. Mark seemed relaxed and happy at dinner, and if you watch the WNYC show, you see him stealing glances at Ingunn. Harmony again, everywhere.
I’ve been listening while sampling reds from the Piedmont and Tuscany. Bright, immediately enjoyable but with loads of complexity – sounds like a Jayhawks song. Have also been cooking gumbos and thinking about Southern rice dishes.