ENDLESS FLIGHT The Jayhawks

The expanded
reissues of two key albums find the seminal Americana band returning to the nest for a
reunion.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Mark Olson seems like the kind of guy who’d be fun to hang
out with. Chatting on the phone from his home in the idyllic realms of Joshua
Tree, California,
he offers a ready laugh and no hint of feigned humility when describing the
devotion of the diehard devotees who have consistently pressed him for news of
a Jayhawks’ reformation.

 

It’s no surprise, then, that he betrays some sense of
relief, not to mention satisfaction, while noting that those same fans have
plenty of material to satiate themselves with these days, delivered in the form
of the reissues, bonus tracks and previously unreleased material that have
flooded the cyber shelves of late. It’s manifest in the re-release of the
band’s first two discs (the eponymous debut, better known as The Bunkhouse Album and their sophomore
set, Blue Earth), an ample anthology,
Music From the North Company, and
more recently, the well cushioned updates of their inarguable classics Tomorrow the Green Grass and Hollywood Town Hall (all courtesy
Sony/Legacy). And that doesn’t include a steady stream of individual albums
from the group’s two prime collaborators – a choice that includes Olson’s solo
output, his efforts with the communal combo The New Original Harmony Creek
Dippers, co-conspirator Gary Louris’ individual efforts and work with the super
group of sorts, Golden Smog. Then too, there was Olson’s and Louris’ long
awaited 2008 reunion, Ready for the Flood,
a collaboration that found the two men reconvening in the studio for the first
time in nearly 15 years.

 

If that last album laid the seeds for a full fledged
reunion, then the welcome return of the expanded versions of Tomorrow the Green Grass and Hollywood Town Hall effectively clinched the deal. Word was that Olson and Louris had reconvened
the other Jayhawks responsible for those landmark efforts and laid out plans to
tour and record a new album. Naturally, BLURT seized on the opportunity to talk
to the amiable Olson and get his impressions about the Jayhawks’ flight from
their formative days in Minneapolis to their subsequent signing to American
records, the two albums that would become their signature statements, and the
return to the nest for a band rightly credited as boosting the arc of roots
rock and Americana.

 

***

 

BLURT: Were you
surprised when after so many years carving out your niche in Minneapolis,
suddenly you found yourselves in L.A. working with a big name producer in
George Drakoulias and a bunch of top flight session players like Nicky Hopkins
and Benmont Tench? That had to seem somewhat surreal.

MARK OLSON: I recall it very well. Actually, it was
something that we had worked for, so we just hoped that it would put us on the
next level. We had been seven years in Minnesota
making those two records and while we were working at our jobs, and our goal
all along was to find someone to put out our albums. So when it happened, we
were very anxious to get out to California.
That was American Records and they gave us the opportunity to record in their
studios and they brought in those other musicians to play on the albums. So it
didn’t seem like a dream at all. It was something that we had worked very hard
for. I don’t know how many years the band had been together, but it had been
together for quite a while. We wanted to go to Europe
and play there and we got the opportunity to do that. So it worked out very
well.

 

 It seems with the wealth of re-releases and
bonus material that’s appeared in recent years, there’s more material now then
there was during your formative years.

 (laughs)   

 

 So does this signal a full-fledged revival of
the Jayhawks? You and Gary have been working together quite a bit in the past
few years.

 Well yeah. In fact,
we’ve already basically made a record. It will be out in a couple months, but I
don’t have all the details to give you, but as far as the music is concerned
it’s done. We’re also going to do some shows around these reissues and then
were going to do some shows for the new album as well down the line.

 

 Other than you and Gary, are any of the other
original members involved?

 It’s basically the Tomorrow the Green Grass group that will
be touring. It’s Karen Grotberg on piano and Marc Perlman on bass. Tim O’Regan
will be on drums. He’s on the Tomorrow
the Green Grass
record and the three albums that followed.

 

 With the rotating cast you had on the drum
stool up until that time, it was almost like a Spinal Tap scenario the way you
guys used to go through drummers
.

 I know. Blahhhh.

 

 Hopefully they don’t blow up like they did in
the movie.

Right! (laughs)

 

 A lot of people have credited the Jayhawks as
being that link between the original country crossover bands like the Byrds and
the Burrito Brothers and the current crop of Americana outfits. Do you see yourselves as
having played that role?

 Well, there was us
and two other bands that fit that description at the time. There was a group
called Souled American that was based in Chicago,
and then there was Uncle Tupelo, and we got to know both of those bands. In Minnesota there wasn’t
anyone else doing exactly what we were doing. It was mostly thrash, so at the
time we were part of the rock scene, there was this loose country folk kind of
singing that we found playing in some bars and such.

        There was a
lot of musical outlets to go see these groups and a lot of record stores and
such, so we investigated bands like the Byrds, the Burrito Brothers, the Everly
Brothers and obviously, we enjoyed all that music. So we were a little bit
rebellious. It was great music. Who wouldn’t want to sound like Sweetheart of the Rodeo? It was fun… it
had an interesting element to it… a touch of the philosophical.  And then there was Bob Dylan and Neil Young
and it all seemed so obvious. It was good music and we wanted to play good
music.  We were listening to these songs
and we thought it was long-standing music that would last a lifetime. And I
think we succeeded in emulating that because people have had this revival of
interest in our group, so to speak. We were just a little out of time. And
maybe we were a little too esoteric or something? That’s all I can think when I
consider that people didn’t want to come see us as much as they wanted to see
some of the other groups. We were a little too esoteric.

 

 That’s an interesting point, because you guys
were birthed in Minneapolis,
a city known mainly for hard core music up until then. Were you considered
oddballs back then?

Oh yeah. When we were playing around the bars, yes we were.
There’s no way to get around that. We were trying to do something different.
We’d go out and play and we wanted to do something that would last. That was
our goal from the get-go. We wanted to be able to quit our jobs and play music
for the rest of our lives.

 

 Still, you were the one that left the band
originally and said you didn’t want to do it anymore. Do you regret that
decision?

 Let’s turn down the
violins now! (laughs) I was with the
band for over a decade and I came to a point where I wanted to do other things
with my life, and I was able to do that. The band had an incredible life and it
went on. Gary and I actually started getting back together ten years ago. He came
out to where I was living and we wrote a song together and we did some tours
together over the past ten years and we did a record together, and now we’ve
done another record together, which I guess you can call an official Jayhawks
record.

        So in
retrospect, I guess you can say that by leaving the band, it didn’t upset the
balance of the band as much as him and I slow-poking it over the past ten
years. (laughs) I just became aware
of that. Being in communication, playing on and off over the past ten years, we
never made an official Jayhawks record, but now we have and it will come out in
the next few months. We’ve done a lot of touring together over the last three
or four years off and on, but as far as the full band, they all had their
moments where they got to a point where they were looking to move on too.

        So it just
happens, you know? So as far as regretting anything, it doesn’t do any good to
regret anything. I just look forward most of the time. I’ve been kind of the… I
don’t know how to describe it… it’s been sort of a gonzo journalist, songwriter
kind of journey. I’ve done an album pretty much every year whether anybody’s
heard it or not. I’ve always put my thoughts down on paper and put the music
down on CD and have managed to tour all over Europe and America pretty
much every year. So my CDs have been at the merch table and I’ve been pretty
involved in playing music the whole time. 
It’s just not on a national PR level I guess.

 

 The New Original Harmony Creek Dippers
certainly made their mark…

Well I don’t know about that… (laughs) But I did manage to release all those records and make
music all those years and I continue to do it.

 

 Are the Creek Dippers ongoing in any way,
shape or form?

Well it goes on in the sense that I put out two records on
my own and two of the people that were involved in the Creek Dippers are still
playing with me – Mike and Ray – and I still see Victoria when I’m back in
Joshua Tree, and we encourage each other with the music we’re doing, and that’s
it. There’s not an official group that tours around anymore though.

 

 When you and Gary reconvened in 2005 [they toured as “From the Jayhawks: An Evening with
Mark Olson & Gary Louris, Together Again”
] and
later made the duo album, was there any thought of bringing the other Jayhawks
back into the fold with you?

Well we did the duo record between the two of us and at
that time the so-called “Mystery Demos” had surfaced and each of us had been
playing acoustically. I think we just wanted to make an album that reflected
how we wrote songs, which was just two acoustic guitars and two vocals. That’s
how we did that and that led into a tour of Europe
and that led into this. We had to do that first, and again it meant spending
some time at the merch table and people coming up and asking when the Jayhawks
were coming back. (laughs) And that’s
what we decided to do.

 

 So it sounds like you just got sick of people
asking when the band was reconvening and you just went “Alright already!”
Meanwhile, there’s been a lot of unreleased material hitting the store shelves
lately. It was great that you decided to re-release the Bunkhouse album. That was a tough one to find.

 That’s come out, there’s been a box…
it’s overwhelming really, the amount of material. It makes me think of
something though. There are people who are fans. They’ve followed us throughout
all these years, but for a lot of people, there were only a couple of years in
their life when they really listened to the material… during the time they got
married, during that time they went to college or whatever. And they really
only follow a band over one or two albums.

       There aren’t
many people, that I’ve found, that follow a band. The amount of albums that’s
been released between the Jayhawks and the Creek Dippers and the various Jayhawks
offshoots, like Golden Smog, must be up in the 35 range and somebody who’s
going to digest that amount of material, that must be one of their major
interests in life. This type of music and hanging around record stores. There
really aren’t more than a hundred people in each town who are like that,
probably less, probably less than 50 or something like that… so for the people
who are going to come to our shows, they really got into it on one album. They
know the songs very well – they got into Hollywood Town Hall or Tomorrow the Green Grass — they
want to hear those songs when they come to our shows. But hopefully they’ll
want to hear our new album too. But I think it’s impossible for them to know all the songs we played over our entire
life. It means something to us because we’ve been playing these songs
practically our entire life, but that’s just sort of a general lay of the land.

 

 In the interim, though, between all these
reissues, it’s almost as if you have three or four new albums to play off of.

 (laughs) When we got back together we
played like three or four songs off that first album and we found out they
worked really great live. There was so much energy on that Bunkhouse record. We had this drummer – all of our drummers had a
different feel – but this one had a kind of hellbent Creedence Clearwater feel.
He was just really intent on pushing things, and all that stuff works really
well when you’re playing them live. That was a different time, when we played as
a bar band, and then recently we’ve played as an acoustic duo, so we’ve
experienced a lot of different music together. Gary and I definitely haven’t
had a musical path together where we found a sound and we stuck with that and
the people wanted to hear it over and over. Both of us have explored a lot of
things as we’ve been going about playing music. I think that’s to our credit in
a way.

 

 It’s interesting that you soaked up some
obvious influences in people like Gram Parsons and the Everly Brothers, but
then, like the Beatles, you took a different turn when people might not have
otherwise expected it.

 We also had some crazy influences like
the Holy Modal Rounders, the Fugs… We were guys that hung around record stores
and listened to a lot of different kinds of things. I love the holy Modal
Rounders. I love the idea of throwing things out there, all kinds of crazy
lyrics. I don’t know. There are so many different styles of music out there, so
if a person wants to sit down and write a song, he can talk about what’s inside
of him and try to play it in his own way, ya know?  It’s just… I think that’s why it’s so hard
for some musicians to relate to the business side of the music where they have
to maintain certain styles, like where Nashville
has its style and there’s just not a lot of room to take off in different
directions. It seems a little like a cookie cutter — that’s the way the world
is — so you just go on in your own way. You try to find a way to do these
things that excite you and make you happy.

 

 You guys always seemed to be able to defy the
notion of sticking to a formula…

 Yeah, well we
haven’t really been able to defy it. When the fans flock to the merch table,
they all want to know when the band’s going to get back together! (laughs)

 

 But now the band is back together!

 It’s like a natural thing. Like what I
tried to explain about the idea that there are people that only listen to one
or two records. That’s the way it’s going to be. My mom and dad would
constantly listen to Bridge Over Troubled
Waters
and they didn’t go around listening to everything by Simon and
Garfunkel. That record was good enough for them. They didn’t go back and examine
early Simon and Garfunkel, Sounds of
Silence
… No, Bridge Over Troubled
Waters
was it and that was on the turntable for one year straight! That’s all they needed. Whenever they felt
like hearing, on went that one album. Here comes the song “Bridge Over Troubled
Water.” Here comes the singing. That’s all they needed out of music. That was
my parents. They weren’t looking for much more than that. That gave them the
feeling that they wanted to have from music and when they went to church, the
Lutheran church, it wasn’t a high intensity musical environment over there. (laughs)

 

 That’s the beauty of these reissues. You’re
giving the fan another visit to the albums they loved, but you’re expanding on
that experience through the bonus tracks, the demos and all the unreleased
material that accompanies them.

 Well, yeah, they can
sit around and listen to it, but it’s quite a lot to digest if you think about
it. If someone were to go out and get the box set, the Bunkhouse record, and all this other stuff and listen to it all, I
got to hand it to them. There’s a lot of stuff on there! Like, whoa!

 

 Is there more material from the vaults that’s
worthy of release?

 I think that’s it, that’s the document
done now. I think that anything else would be redundant. I think there’s maybe
only four songs left worth even considering. I think we put out everything that’s
worth hearing.

 

 When you guys go out on tour, are you going to
delve into any of these obscurities?

 That’s been a
discussion. We have a set list that we all know, that we all worked up last
summer that includes a couple of them, like “Tomorrow the Green Grass,” Leave
No Gold,” “Up Above My Head” – the basic ones like that. Getting into a lot of
the other stuff in a set that runs an hour and a half, or two hours… the thing
is though, we have to hit on the basics, the basic songs on those other albums,
so we can’t just play a bunch of obscurities. (laughs) We’re going to mix some in, that’s the idea and we have a
list of some of the ones we’re going to try to tackle.

 

 This is, after all, the current product… at
least until the new album comes along.

 That’s the idea.
We’ve been looking over a list of seven now, so we’ll see how that is. Between
the ones we already know, that would be eleven obscurities. So you tell me, if
we go out there and play eleven obscurities, what are people going to say? If you
do 24 songs, that’s a lot of songs!

 

 The good thing is that these bonus tracks were
sprung from the sessions that birthed the parent albums, so they weren’t
totally out of whack…

 No they weren’t!
They all work as songs. It’s just a matter of do we want to pull it off. Now
you’re in on the discussion. What do we want to pull off to make room?
Something’s got to go off the main set list that people know and that we’ve
rocked out for years on.

 

 Are you planning to do a show where you play
an entire album and focus the set list on that?

 Well, that’s what
we’re supposed to be doing on this upcoming tour. We’re going to be doing that.
We’re playing double nights in Chicago and New York.

 

 So where are you residing these days?

 I live in Joshua Tree, California. I’ve been here a long time.

 

 Are you ever haunted by the ghost of Gram
Parsons?

 Ah, not really. It’s
an entirely different experience for me than those days. I guess they used to
come out here and space out and walk around under the moon. When I came out
here, I met an old master carpenter and he helped me fix up two houses, so mine
has been a little more of a building experience than walking around spaced out,
waiting for some kind of muse. My experience hasn’t been one of muse searching.
It’s been one of the hardware store. (laughs)
So that’s been about it, so there hasn’t been any ghost of Gram haunting me out
here.

 

 Yet Joshua Tree always seemed such an idyllic
place, especially in those early cover photos that adorned the Creek Dipper
albums with you and Victoria…

 Well, it was and we
enjoyed that. But at the same time, we were trying to be pioneers and fix up
our house. It was a wonderful experience. Incredible really. We’d take off for Europe. We’d go from this, to being out there and we’d record
everything ourselves, and we’d tour on trains. We had a really nice time. It was really living. That’s
the only way to describe it.

 

 And now you’re entering another phase, sort of
circling back to the beginning
.

 I’m just lucky I
have another phase to enter! I don’t know what to say really. People want to
come and see us play! I’m going out there to do it. No bones about it. People
really want to hear these songs and see these reunion shows and I was really
shocked! Every time we kick into one of these songs, they just seem to love it.
They want to hear us play and I want to be a part of it.

 

 [Photo Credit: Steven
Cohen
]

 

 

Leave a Reply