Today the Green Grass.
The Jayhawks—The Greatest Band You’ve Never Heard—Reunite
By Bill ReeseThe reunion tour is one of the staples of late-career rock and roll. Everyone’s done it, some have done it multiple times. Hardcore fans patiently, desperately await the day when Morrissey and Marr bury the hatchet for a Smith’s reunion—or when Page and Plant decide that Jason Bonham is good enough to take on tour with Led Zep—or when the corpse of Bradley Nowell rises from the dead, smites the legions of Sublime tribute acts, smokes a bowl, and re-takes the mic for the Long Beach ska legends.
But for The Jayhawks, the alt-country pioneers from the Land of Lakes, there was no headlining reunion slot at Coachella, no paparazzi-laden press conference, barely even a cough in the music press. The Jayhawks had been on indefinite hiatus since 2005 after nearly two decades of flying under the radars of the popular music zeitgeist. They slowly evolved from country revivalists to alternative-country stalwarts, to folk-pop futurists. Several Jayhawks sang lead vocals, and whenever one of them left the group, another stepped up to fill in the gap. With each LP released, The Jayhawks earned respect from the local scene, the critical press and college radio, but by the time they went their separate ways, most music fans only knew of the Jayhawks as the mascot from Kansas University.
The band formed in Minneapolis in the mid 1980s as the brain trust of acoustic guitarist Mark Olson and electric guitarist Gary Louris. The group’s early work was dominated by the country/folk influences of Olson, who was the majority songwriter of the group’s eponymous debut. Olson also took lead on 1989’s Blue Earth after Louris had left the band following a bad car crash. After overdubbing some vocals, he rejoined the group. Louris’s soulful tenor and Olsen’s ragged, twangy drawl complimented each other perfectly. Like Lennon and McCartney before them, the union of these voices allowed a pop sensibility to to creep into the Jayhawks sound, one that would eventually engulf the group.
Blue Earth managed to attract major label attention in the most unconventional of ways. It was playing in the background of a conference call between reps from Blue Earth’s label, Minneapolis indie Twin Tone, and reps from Def American, the label Rick Rubin formed after leaving Def Jam. The music caught the attention of the folks from Def American, and after an in-person listen, the group was signed to their first major label. Hollywood Town Hall was released on the newly re-named American Recordings in 1992. With Olson and Louris collaborating on just about every track, the group began to refine the sound they had been toying with for half a decade. The lead track “Waiting for the Sun” was the band’s first successful single, with Louris’ lead vocal riding the choppy clicks of his electric guitar.
They followed up Town Hall with 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, the Jayhawks’ signature record. Opening with Olson’s masterpiece “Blue,” which cracked the Top 40 in Canada, the record is dominated by genius offerings from Olson, especially the shit-kickin’ country-rocker “Miss Williams Guitar” (named after Olson’s then-girlfriend Victoria Wilson), the melancholy “Ann Jane,” and “Blue’s” downbeat, somber counterpart, “Over My Shoulder.” Louris was no ghost on Green Grass, adding gorgeous harmonies to Olson’s songs, as well as lush compositions like “I’d Run Away” and “Nothing Left to Borrow.” Despite some success north of the border, the reaction stateside was lukewarm at best. The band had overspent on the recording of Green Grass and the CD receipts could not recoup the cost.
In the aftermath of Green Grass, Mark Olson left The Jayhawks to spend more time with Victoria Williams, who he would later marry (then divorce). Louris decided to keep the band intact, recruiting guitarist Kraig Johnson to fill in on guitar. Louris also recruited Tim O’Reagan on drums and voice. Louris became the group’s primary songwriting force, and the Olson-less songwriting sessions produced 1997’s Sound of Lies, a more straightforward rock record with pinches of psychedelia. Louris’ songwriting style had always had a flair for the dramatic, with slow-building verses and grand, sweeping choruses. Karen Grotberg, who’d joined the group for Green Grass is all over the record as well, adding harmony and sorrowful keys to the opener “The Man Who Loved Life,” the hope-rising “Trouble,” and Louris’ ironic rocker “Big Star.” O’Reagan and Grotberg’s harmonies make the record as gorgeous as it is, but the two of them did not compliment Louris’ pipes as much as the departed Olson.
With 2000’s Smile, Louris pushed the band’s pop sensibilities further than they had ever been before. He and producer Bob Ezrin used drum machines and some synths to add to the group’s sound. While this enraged some of the group’s hardcore fans, the resulting disc is Louris’ personal masterpiece. From the symphonic, swirling title track; the mandolin-strumming, foot-tapper “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me;” and the synth-pop anthem “Queen of the World;” to the bittersweet ballads “Mr. Wilson” and “Broken Harpoon;” Louris’ crafted a record that combined all of his musical influences on one disc. Despite its genius, the reviews were generally mixed. The New York Times review was titled “What If You Made a Masterpiece and No One Cared?”
The band’s final album, 2002’s Rainy Day Music, was a low-key, acoustic, return to the band’s roots. The stark arrangements, many with only Louris singing, highlighted the absence of Mark Olson, who had now appeared on only half of the band’s major recordings. In 2005, the group went on an indefinite hiatus.
In the end, Louris became as dominant a force in the late-era Jayhawks as Olson was in the early eras. By the time I discovered the band in the summer of 2000, I assumed that The Jayhawks were a purely Gary Louris project. It is exceedingly rare to see a group with two frontmen whose leadership passes gradually from one to the other over the life of the group, but that’s how The Jayhawks did it. Along the way, they released four records that were as phenomenal as they were unknown. Their style was unique, yet I hear pieces of it everywhere from Conor Oberst’s country opus I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning to The Minus 5’s latest, Killingsworth, to the new country-esque offering by The Decemberists.
Had The Jayhawks come around in the age of Napster or popular music blogs, they would never have flown under the radar for as long as they did. Everybody is always waiting to jump onto the next thing, and alt-country never had a chance in a pre-web world to build itself into a powerful underground movement. For reasons beyond their control, The Jayhawks were the most underrated band of the 1990s, though no one at either of this week’s sold out NYC shows will ever admit such a gross injustice.
Bill Reese is a contributing writer for Officially A Yuppie. He is also an editor at Playbill and has written the pieces "From the Muddy Banks of the Gowanus" and "The Gospel According to Craig Finn."