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The Jayhawks

Roots-rock vets return in fine form


The Jayhawks
  • The Jayhawks

Mark Olson says there are only so many songs that can be written before they’ll all be used up. And the co-founder of the Jayhawks is worried people in music-factory towns like Nashville might be penning more than their fair share.

“There are probably 5,000 people writing songs every day in Nashville,” Olson says. “Where are those songs going? They’re going to drain all the stuff out of the air, all the ether, all the creativity, and put an end to this idea of being a songwriter and making music.

“If 5,000 people are writing a song every day, with the goal of cashing in, then what I do and what you [music journalists] do and what people running record stores do, it’s all going to be over. There’s a finite number of ways of putting these songs together. They’re going to reach a limit, and then everything’s going to have been done!”

Just as Olson has you convinced that we need to cease all songwriting in Nashville—and that of all aspiring teen poets and garage bands everywhere—in favor of the assured quality songcraft of folks like himself and fellow Jayhawks founder Gary Louris, he laughs across the phone line to let you know he’s not quite that pessimistic about music’s future.

“Now, I don’t believe in any of that, because I believe each person has a unique story to tell inside of them,” Olson says. “But that’s the hurdle; you have to get at that story somehow and express it in melody and lyrics.”

Melody and lyrics, of course, have been strong suits of the Jayhawks since the band first formed in Minneapolis in the mid-’80s. Early songs blended the guitar jangle of The Byrds and the stunning vocal harmonies of The Beach Boys, eventually garnering the band a solid following, critical praise and a major-label record deal in the early ’90s.

The band reached a creative peak with 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall and 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, but Olson split from the band in late ’95 after the Green Grass tour, leading to more Beach Boys comparisons—more specifically, to legendarily unpredictable songwriting-savant Brian Wilson. Olson, seemingly out of the blue, bailed his Midwestern hometown and longtime band to forge a new life in the desert—Joshua Tree, Calif.—and started a new project, the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, with his then-new wife Victoria Williams (they’ve since split up, although Olson still lives in Joshua Tree).

Olson never lost touch with his Jayhawks bandmates, though, touring as an acoustic duo with Louris, and then reuniting with the full band when there was a sudden flurry of activity surrounding reissued Jayhawks albums from the early days. In 2011, the band released a new album, Mockingbird Time, which captures the distinct, harmony-driven sound of the Jayhawks’ early material.

“What we didn’t expect was that when we’d start playing again, that we’d be selling out shows,” Olson says of the reunited band’s touring since Mockingbird Time’s release. “People have probably heard our music over the years, but they didn’t ever get a chance to see the band the first time around, so now they’re coming out.”

What they’re hearing are stellar sets of material old and new that have had critics once again heaping praise on the Jayhawks’ timeless songs. And while he’s enjoying the attention, Olson is truly worried that musical path he was able to take won’t be there for a new generation of wannabe wandering minstrels.

“The complete creative explosion in the ’60s, it’s all coming to an end now with the record stores closing,” Olson says. “There are young musicians who are fantastic who are never going have the chance to go down that road anymore. Without record stores offering places for creative people to meet, it doesn’t work. Meeting people on the computer, or texting each other, doesn’t work for music. It doesn’t make music into something that’s beautiful. And there’s so much beauty in music, it’s unbelievable.” 

w/ Paul Jacobsen & The Madison Arm
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Saturday, Jan. 28, 9 p.m.
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Twitter: @DanNailen