MINNEAPOLIS – While critics give the Jayhawks credit for helping invent alt-country, co-founder Mark Olson is quick to downplay the band’s contributions to the rustic blend of rock and country that blossomed in the 1980s and ’90s.
“If people credit us with it, I think it was more that we happened to be working along the same lines” as other groups, Olson says. “There was definitely people working on the same thing.”
Olson left the Jayhawks in 1995 but now is back in the lineup with co-leader Gary Louris. The re-formed Jayhawks played a couple of festivals in Spain in May and are scheduled to play their first U.S. show Friday in Minneapolis.
The concert coincides with Sony Legacy’s release Tuesday of “Music From the North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology.” The collection spans the Minneapolis band’s history from Twin/Tone Records through American Recordings; it’s available as a single CD or a two-CD-plus-DVD set that includes Jayhawks music video clips. In September, Sony Legacy will start rereleasing the Jayhawks’ five major-label releases, with bonus tracks.
Olson, 47, recalls the Jayhawks making waves when they began playing in 1985, when “the Minneapolis Sound” was defined by Prince’s funk-rock and the Replacements’ pop-punk.
“I think people thought it was a little strange, we were playing this country stuff in the rock bars,” Olson said in a recent interview.
The Jayhawks were attracted to the humour and world view of the Flying Burrito Brothers and the “great stories” of The Band, Olson said. That led Olson and Louris to trace those bands’ influences and discover “English folk stuff,” Olson said.
The Jayhawks signed with Rick Rubin’s Def American label (later American Recordings) and released two classic albums – “Hollywood Town Hall” (1992) and “Tomorrow the Green Grass” (1995) – with producer George Drakoulias.
Drakoulias said he first heard the Jayhawks during a phone call to the Minneapolis-based independent label Twin/Tone, where their 1989 album, “Blue Earth,” was playing in the background.
“I just loved the sound,” Drakoulias recalled. He says he loved Louris’ “pure tone” contrasting Olson’s “damaged” approach. “They just got to me,” Drakoulias said.
Drakoulias said the Jayhawks “really opened the door” for other bands, such as Counting Crows and the Wallflowers. “We cracked it open, and those guys kicked it open,” he said.
But after 10 years in the Jayhawks, Olson decided to leave the band when he married singer-songwriter Victoria Williams and moved to the California desert. (The two have since split up.)
“And for some reason I got in into my mind I needed to change,” Olson said. “Looking back, I probably should have taken a couple-year break or something.”
Olson said he also was put off by the “big tour buses” and other rock-star trappings that had enveloped the Jayhawks. He went on to tour Europe and put out albums as the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers. The Jayhawks soldiered on, putting out three more albums – “Sound of Lies” (1997), “Smile” (2000) and “Rainy Day Music” (2003) – before Louris declared the band dead in 2005.
Olson and Louris hadn’t spoken much for five or six years when the two got back together in 2002 to write a song for a movie.
“And that’s I think a little bit to my discredit, but I should have picked up the phone more,” Olson said of his estrangement from his songwriting and singing partner. The two began touring as a duo and earlier this year released an album on New West Records, “Ready for the Flood,” produced by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes.
Louris, 54, said he’s glad the two have mended fences.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing to find somebody that you can sing with and create this third voice,” Louris said.
With keyboardist Karen Grotberg, a band member since 1993, available, Louris said it was decided to reunite the Jayhawks with the classic lineup.
“There’s a certain chemistry to each of the lineups. This is one of the people’s favourites,” Louris said.
Freelance writer P.D. Larson, a longtime Jayhawks fan, co-produced and wrote liner notes for the anthology. He looks forward to hearing the blending of Olson’s and Louris’ voices again.
“It’s one of those intangible things,” Larson said of the combination of the Jayhawks’ two leaders. “Certainly part of it is a yin and yang thing. Their voices complement each other well.”
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