The Jayhawks: Time Stands Still While The Music Flows
by Terry Roland
(originally published in San Diego Troubadour)
Great bands often come from great cities and great eras of musical history. L.A., San Diego, New York City, and San Francisco have seen their share of pop music history during the late ’60s in bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, and the Velvet Underground. This turbulent time produced bands that reached for something greater than what was available to them even in their regions but instead, like some flood, their music went out into the world around them, even transcending time and space. Like that time, Minneapolis, Minnesota during the ’80s produced such a great diversity of bands it’s hard not to take notice. During that decade the great northeastern city that gave birth to artists like the Replacements, Husker Du, and Prince. Even though the mid-’80s was a time far removed from the often volatile and experimental late ’60s, no band proved to be more durable and influential in the Americana music movement of their time than the Jayhawks. Like most pioneers of the roots music movement of the last 25 years, they have maintained a relatively low profile compared to their degree of influence on bands today who constantly point to them as igniters and inspirers of their music. After an eight-year hiatus the Jayhawks reunited in 2011 to record and perform a new album titled Mockingbird Time that has all of the hallmarks of the best of American music today. They draw inspiration from the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Band while maintaining their genre-defining signature sound that is formed around the collaboration among founding members Gary Louris and Mark Olson. Like other great American bands, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, and the Band, the Jayhawks have survived eras and multiple personnel changes even while they have remarkably managed to create a progressive sound that never leans on the imitation of past successes or muddles through attempts to go along with modern trends. The result is a pure sound that celebrates artistic survival and the way of long-term musical friendships enriched by a community of fans that thrive while their music transcends ego and commercial success.
The latest line up includes the 1995 version of the band: Mark Olson, Gary Louris, Marc Perlman, Karen Grotberg, and Tim O’Reagan. Mockingbird Time sings with the resonance of a band of artists who are sure of their musical vision and their own well-worn unity. On their eighth release of new, original material and their first since 2003’s Rainy Day Time, Mockingbird Time stands well alongside their legacy of fine studio albums. So far, it has also proved to be their most successful, entering Billboard’s Top 200 at #38. But, the most significant side of this reunion album is the coming together of the two principal founders Mark Olson and Gary Louris once again. The two hammered out the nucleolus of their sound in Minneapolis back in the mid-1980s. As they circulated around the Twin Cities during the latter part of that decade there was little thought about this new forming genre being dubbed “Americana.” But, they built their reputation on the a solid influence from the best of American music, reflecting a strong pop foundation with harmonic vocals and lyric-driven, tightly structured songs; They aptly named themselves after the Band’s prehistoric title, the Hawks. This gave them the sense of history needed as well as the ambition required to create great music. During the years that followed, they did not disappoint. From 1986 until 1989 Louris and Olson recorded an epic like series of demos that was finally released in 1989 as Blue Earth. When the demos came to the attention of A&R rep. George Drakoulias from the label Def American, the band was finally signed to a major label. In 1992, Def American released Hollywood Town Hall, which has since become a genre classic, revealing a fresh new integration of pop, folk, and rock fusion folded into a fresh, original sound. The release of their sophomore effort, Tomorrow the Green Grass, in 1995, was to be the last collaboration of Louris and Olson during that decade. Mark Olson unexpectedly decided to leave the band to escape the confines of the corporate music world and to spend time with his then-wife, legendary singer-songwriter Victoria Williams who suffered from Multiple Sclerosis. Together with Williams Olson spent time creating music in the California high desert town of Joshua Tree. This resulted in the unique collaboration between Olson and Williams, the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, who went on to produce seven albums until the couple divorced in 2006.
Even though half the creative equation that formed the Jayhawks’ center seriously reduced the band’s credibility; Gary Louris managed to stand up to the challenge and over a six-year period between 1997 to 2003, with the help of Kraig Johnson and Jessy Greene, released a series of three albums that broke new stylistic ground and added to the band’s legacy in much the same way Roger McGuinn did with the Byrds during the late ’60s when he kept the band alive and thriving with the help of Gene Parsons, Clarence White, John York, and Skip Battin. 1997’s The Sound of Lies broadened the band’s canvas with a darker, psychedelic sound that had little to do with the sweet country harmonies Louris once created with his former partner. The soundscape they moved into, which emphasized a variety of pop textures, brought them to a wider audience. Today it is considered a modern pop classic. The 2000 release, Smile, created yet a larger canvas with a clear break from the traditional roots foundation they had worked from for most of their history in favor of drum machines and synthesizers. While it was a risk that alienated some of their fans and critics, Smile proved to be a successful experiment comparable to the Beach Boys and the Beatles when they decided to break the mold and create new creative eras during the time of the like-titled incomplete Brian Wilson masterpiece, Smile, and Sgt. Pepper. They didn’t adapt their sound to modern times but made the modern studio devices of the day adapt to the Jayhawks. Smile excels in production, performance, and writing in much the same way many of the best albums of the modern rock era have succeeded, including a creative use of studio effects, song continuity, layered harmonies, lyrical intricacies, and skilled musical production. Indeed, Smile may be that masterpiece of an album you’ve never heard.
Following two highly experimental and risky projects, Louris and crew returned to the studio with the accessible and roots-friendly, stripped down Rainy Day Music in 2003. The album feels like a well-deserved artistic oasis amid all of the over-produced efforts of the time. The Jayhawks were founded on a pure principle of the simplicity and straightforwardness of their approach and having successfully journeyed through some pretty lofty pop domains, Rainy Day Music plays like a welcome trip back home to their own bountiful. In the wake of this release, 2003 also saw what many thought would be the Jayhawk’s final shows. But, it’s hard to keep a good band down, let alone a great one.
In 2005, in a surprise move, Gary Louris and Mark Olson came together for an acoustic tour. The result was a slow six-year build toward a reunion of the 1995 line up of the Jayhawks, which has cumulated in the September 2011 release of the critically successful Mockingbird Time. The new album finds the band in peak form with Louris and Olson singing their familiar two-part harmonies throughout and their rootsiest production and instrumentation of their long career.
In a sense, the Jayhawks have seemed, at times, out of place during musical eras of sometimes fragmented and non-risky pop structures. They would have been more comfortable during the late-’60s when great American bands were constantly exploring new musical landscapes. But they have lived out what many of their influences did and at times in even more successful ways. Over the last 50 years of pop music history it’s rare that a band has been able to survive a split between two creative members, maintain, and even progress on their artistic legacy, then, inevitably splinter into silence only to reunite and pick up where they left off as if no time had passed between them. What sets Mockingbird Time and their current tour apart from other reunions is the effortless way they have re-captured their past creative magic without any degree of nostalgia or force. The Jayhawks just seem to flow from that timeless place where great American music has always come from, that place of dreams, visions, and pure inspiration. Today, they stand as a model of what it means to be a band who has been able to swim upstream into the flow of music that has and will continue to stand up to the test of time.
See the Jayhawks in concert on Tuesday, January 31, at the Belly Up, 143 S. Cedros, Solana Beach, 8pm.