The Jayhawks - Biography
By Audra Wolfmann
Preceding the alt-country trend by several years, The Jayhawks formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1985 with their roots rock sound firmly in place. Culling inspiration from Americana heroes such as The Byrds, the Louvin Brothers, Gram Parsons, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, The Jayhawks were an instantaneous local favorite in the clubs of the Twin Cities.
Although originally envisioned as a solo project by singer, songwriter, and guitarist Mark Olson, The Jayhawks successful recipe for down-home rock comes from the chiming interplay of Olson’s acoustic guitar with co-frontman Gary Louris’ electric guitar. The original lineup also included Marc Perlman on bass and Norm Rogers on drums.
In 1986, the band released their debut album The Jayhawks (1986 Bunkhouse Records) with a pressing of just a few thousand copies. The harmonious blend of Olson and Louris’ voices as well as their complementary guitar work and heartfelt lyrics set the tone for the band’s signature sound. However, The Jayhawks did not attract attention from the major labels.
Drummer Thad Spencer replaced Rogers and The Jayhawks spent the next few years recording demo tapes in hopes of luring the ever-elusive major labels. In October of 1988, Louris left the band after he was injured in a car accident. Dan Gaarder replaced Louris temporarily, but for the most part the band was on hiatus. During this time, Louris began his career as an architect and Perlman got a job with a publishing company.
Just when all was beginning to take a turn for the domestic for The Jayhawks, news came that Dave Ayers of the Minneapolis label Twin Tone offered to release the collected demos of 1986-1989. Louris was called in to overdub a few of his old guitar parts and made the decision to rejoin the band. The demos were re-mixed, a few new songs were recorded, and the collection was released in 1989 as Blue Earth (1989 Twin/Tone Records, re-released 2003).
The critics loved the stripped-down, elemental sound of Blue Earth. The insightful tales of drinking and love lost written by both Olson and Louris earned The Jayhawks the distinction of being “the only country-rock band that matters” from the Village Voice. After replacing drummer Spencer with Ken Callahan, the band hit the road on a national tour in a rehabilitated ambulance they fondly called Bula.
In 1991, the band signed on to the major label Def American (later called American Recordings) after producer and A&R rep George Drakoulias reportedly heard Blue Earth playing in the background during a phone call with Ayers of Twin Tone. The following year, The Jayhawks released Hollywood Town Hall (1992 Def American), which was produced by Drakoulias and recorded both in Los Angeles and Minnesota. In the midst of the early 90’s grunge fever, the success of the folksy Hollywood Town Hall was unexpected. The album charted at number 11 on the Billboard Heatseekers and made many critics’ “best of” lists. The breakout single “Waiting for the Sun” hit numbers 20 and 29 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks and Mainstream Rock Tracks charts, respectively.
After the release of Hollywood Town Hall, keyboardist Karen Grotberg was inducted to the lineup after Olson discovered her playing in a bar with the Minneapolis country group The Ranchtones. Callahan moved on from the band, and they acquired their fourth drummer, Tim O’Reagan.
In 1995, The Jayhawks recorded another album with Drakoulias and the newly renamed American Recordings. Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995 American Recordings) proved to be more diverse than their previous albums, bursting out of the confines of traditional country rock and hitting pop and rock highs with songs like “Blue” and “Real Light.” Another standout track is "Miss Williams' Guitar," a song written for Olson's then-girlfriend, folk singer Victoria Williams (whom he later married, then divorced in February of 2006). Tomorrow the Green Grass failed to garner as much attention as their previous album, but it did chart at 92 on the Billboard 200.
Later in ’95, Olson amicably left the band to spend more time with Victoria Williams. Olson and Williams went on to form the country folk band The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, recording several albums from their home in Joshua Tree, California. The Jayhawks continued to record and perform, omitting all songs solely written by Olson. Guitarist Kraig Jarret Johnson, a band member from Louris and Perlman’s side project Golden Smog, was brought in to replace Olson.
The Jayhawks first album without Olson, Sound of Lies (1997 American Recordings), took the bold direction of Tomorrow the Green Grass and upped the ante by adding psychedelic and surf to the pop mix. Louris’ songwriting retained the downtrodden honesty of his prior work, but the music ventures far from the origins of their signature alt-country sound.
After bringing in Jen Gunderman of the funk band DAG to replace Grotberg on keyboards, The Jayhawks recorded Smile (2000 American Recordings) with veteran producer Bob Ezrin (KISS, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper). Throwing all but their lyrical debt to country overboard, Smile floats above their previous musical territory on clouds of power pop and electronic blips and whirls. If their alt-country fans were in anyway disenchanted, the band made up for it in new fans; Smile hit number 14 on the Billboard Top Internet Albums and it’s single "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" appeared in the popular television show Dawson's Creek and a Ralph Lauren commercial.
In 2003, the band released their seventh album Rainy Day Music (2003 Lost Highway). Shifting gears once again, Rainy Day Music is a nearly all-acoustic folk-rock affair and includes the grounding presence banjo and pedal steel guitar (courtesy of ex-Long Ryder Stephen McCarthy). Fans and critics lauded the album as a return to the promise held by The Jayhawks earlier albums, which drew inspiration from The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. As The Austin Chronicle put it in their June 27, 2003 issue, “These are tunes that would've fit perfectly on Top 40 radio in the Seventies.” The album didn’t quit crack the Top 40 in 2003 but it did hit number 51 on both the Billboard 200 and Top Internet Albums.
Olson and Louris joined forces in 2005 and 2006 for a tour billed as "From The Jayhawks: An Evening with Mark Olson & Gary Louris, Together Again,” in which they played their own new songs and their collaborations from the classic Jayhawks days.