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Members include Thad Callahan (group member, 1989-93), drums; Karen Grotberg (group member, 1993-99), keyboards; Jen Gunderman, (group member, 1999-2002), keyboards; Don Heffington (group member, 1994), drums; Kraig Johnson (group member, 1996-2001) guitar; Gary Louris (joined group, 1985), vocals, guitar; Stephen McCarthy (joined group, 2002), guitar; Mark Olson (left group, 1995), vocals, guitar; Tim O'Reagan (joined group, c. 1993), drums; Marc Perlman, bass; Norm Rogers (left group, c. 1988), drums; Thad Spencer (group member, 1988-89), drums. Addresses: Management--Russell Carter Artist Management, 315 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Ste. 755, Decatur, GA 30030. Record company--American Recordings, 3500 West Olive Ave., Ste. 1550, Burbank, CA 91505. Website--The Jayhawks Official Website: http://www.thejayhawks.net.
Reminiscent of country-rock bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Jayhawks became one of the most critically acclaimed performers of a blend of down-to-earth rock, country, and folk music in the 1990s and early 2000s. Their songs sketch life from the perspective of the common man; their music can shift from a rowdy good-time feel to touching melancholy within a few bars. "We're between the seams of different rock systems," singer and lead guitarist Gary Louris told the Detroit Metro Times. "We do have American influences, but we don't analyze what we do--almost to a fault. In Europe they keep trying to put us up as this band symbolizing America. We write songs because we have things that are calling out to be expressed."
When singer and guitarist Mark Olson was growing up in California and Minneapolis, Minnesota, his musical tastes leaned toward performers like seminal folksinger Woody Guthrie, country vocalist Emmylou Harris, bluegrass's Louvin Brothers, and traditional blues musicians. For a while he played bass fiddle with a rockabilly band called Stagger Lee; it was with that outfit that he began performing his own songs. In the mid-1980s Olson met guitarist Marc Perlman, who had previously played with the Neglecters. Olson and Perlman decided to form a new band, with the latter musician electing to switch to bass. The twosome was joined by drummer Norm Rogers, formerly of the Cows.
For his part, Louris got a late start as an electric guitarist, not purchasing his first instrument until graduating from college in 1977. He began playing lead guitar at twenty-five, after which he established a local reputation by playing with two Minnesota bands, Schnauzer and Safety Last. Louris joined Olson, Perlman, and Rogers after seeing them perform in Minneapolis in February of 1985.
Perfected Country-Rock Sound
Calling themselves the Jayhawks, the group honed their country-folk sound and won over an audience playing the club circuit. They recorded their first album, The Jayhawks, independently in 1986. Though only a few thousand copies of the album were made, the release helped expand the Jayhawks' reputation outside of the Minneapolis area. Critics began labeling the group "the new Flying Burrito Brothers," after the legendary country-rock band of the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to American Recordings press materials. Perhaps this was in no small part to Olson's vocals, which, observed Trouser Press were "often a dead ringer for [Gram Parson's], and his songs cover similar emotional ground."
Olson and Louris clicked as a songwriting team, but the group was unable to earn a living from music alone. They continued playing gigs at night while working at day jobs. Sometimes they would grind out three sets a night in run-down watering holes and sleep on the floors of friends or strangers when they played outside of their hometown. Rogers was replaced on drums by Thad Spencer. Then, in the fall of 1988, Louris was almost fatally injured in an automobile accident. The group disbanded to reassess their musical direction.
Dave Ayers, an executive with Twin Tone Records, which had released debut albums by the Replacements and Soul Asylum--stalwarts of the underground rock scene who would go on to great prominence--recommended that the group put their demo tapes together to form an album. The result was Blue Earth, released on Twin Tone in 1989. Blue Earth featured a broader sound than was found on the Jayhawks' previous release, and was received with some enthusiasm.
After recovering from his injuries Louris rejoined the group, and the Jayhawks became a full-time act. A new drummer, Ken Callahan, brought a harder rock sound to the band, and frequent touring helped to build awareness of the group. As the story goes, George Drakoulias, a producer with Def American Recordings who had hit it big with an Atlanta band called the Black Crowes, was talking on the phone to Ayers and heard Blue Earth in the background. Impressed by the group's sound, Drakoulias signed the Jayhawks to Def American (which would later drop the "Def" from its name).
Praise for Hollywood Town Hall
The partnership with Drakoulias led to the group's breakthrough 1992 recording, Hollywood Town Hall. Featuring a bigger, more developed sound and contributions from noted keyboardists Nicky Hopkins, who had worked with the Rolling Stones, and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, it provided the songs of Olson and Louris with a considerably richer presentation.
Critical praise for Hollywood Town Hall was virtually universal. In Guitar Player, Heidi Siegmund wrote, "The Jayhawks' tough, country-tinged rock recalls the plainspoken emotion of Neil Young's earliest solo albums." Entertainment Weekly reported that the album offered "blatant old-wave country rock" and "earnest, rugged songs about the travails of forlorn love and salvation." Stewart Francke of the Metro Times described the band's work as "taut, emotional music that falls somewhere between Bill Monroe's hill-top country and the melancholy, myth-drenched rock of the Band."
Particular attention was paid to Hollywood's lyrics. Demonstrating a contentment drawn from tradition and hope for a better future, the poetry of the Jayhawks' stood in stark contrast to the alienation and rage of the so-called grunge bands that were claimed by youthful audiences in 1992. "The Jayhawks' sincerity is refreshing: it implies a mode of acceptance and affirmation when all around is satire and rejection," remarked Francke. Louris told him, "The lyrics are intentionally oblique. Maybe it's our midwestern embarrassment at having to actually speak our minds. It's easier for us to hide things in imagery." The most popular song from the album was the lead single, "Waiting for the Sun," for which the group filmed a video that earned airplay on the cable giant MTV. "Crowded in the Wings," "Wichita," and "Take Me with You (When You Go)" also received radio play.
In yet another change behind the drum kit, Tim O'Reagan replaced Callahan in 1993. While touring, the group added keyboardist Karen Grotberg, who had been playing with a weekend band called the Ranchtones. The Jayhawks spent 18 months on the road after the release of Hollywood Town Hall, sometimes opening for the Black Crowes, who were vocal supporters of the band. Various bandmembers also contributed songs or session work to albums by former Lone Justice singer Maria McKee and Rolling Stone Mick Jagger. The group also appeared at the benefit concert Farm Aid VI. Finally back in Minneapolis, Olson and Louris began working on songs for a new album.
Spring of 1994 saw the band's return to the studio. This time Olson, Louris, Perlman, Grotberg, Tench, and former Lone Justice drummer Don Heffington serving as the basic recording unit. Experimenting with their sound, the group steered slightly away from their country roots. The addition of strings--arranged by Paul Buckmaster, highly regarded for his work on Elton John's early albums--added new texture to several songs.
Tomorrow the Green Grass was released in February of 1995. Reflecting a widely held view, tastemaker Lorraine Ali said of the record in Rolling Stone, "This may be the album that breaks the Minneapolis-born band beyond its base of critics and country-rock connoisseurs." She called Tomorrow "the finest album in their nine-year history," remarking that it "still delivers sweet vocal harmonies and heartbreaking melodies, but this time around there's more bite to all the pure prettiness." Ali singled out the cut "Nothing Left to Borrow" for its "stunning yet uninhibited vocals."
"We had a retro tag, but I don't think anything on this record sounds like old stuff," Olson told Ali. "In fact, it doesn't even sound like our last album." Two songs in particular, "Blue" and "I'd Run Away," clearly crossed the line from country-rock to pop. Still, the band retained a connection to their roots with "See Him on the Street," which sounded to some like it would have been comfortable on Blue Earth.
Touring to promote the album proved somewhat disillusioning; as opening act for the enormously popular Tom Petty, the Jayhawks frequently found themselves playing in large arenas where much of the crowd, there to see Petty, did not disguise their disinterest. "What I don't like about these tours is the pressure to make some sort of an impression, to sell ourselves night in, night out," Olson told Entertainment Weekly. Despite their appearance on such a high-profile tour, meanwhile, members of the group did not appear eager to become a "mainstream" act. Nor did they think it likely. Said Perlman in Entertainment Weekly, "Maybe we'll have a huge hit some day, but I think our stuff is too quirky and not straightforward enough."
Olson left the band in 1995, choosing to move to Joshua Tree, California, with his wife, singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. Together, they have released several projects with Michael Russell as The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers. His first solo effort was My Own Jo Ellen released in 2001 by Hightone Records. Olson stated he was hoping to build a following for his new music from the existing base of Jayhawks fans.
A New Era for the Jayhawks
With the remaining Jayhawks--Louris, Perlman, Grotberg and O'Reagan--and a couple of recruits from other Americana bands to fill out the sound, Louris recorded Sound of Lies under the Jayhawks name in 1997. The departure from roots music left critics and fans scratching their heads. As David Browne wrote in Entertainment Weekly, the group was now sounding "conventional" with Olson's contributions sorely missed. "The Jayhawks mistake rock conventions like squealy guitar solos for innovation, and Louris' songs tend toward the mewling or nasty." In summary, Browne said the album found its sound "caught between two worlds--it's a little bit wimpy country, a little bit wimpy rock & roll--and ends up lacking the power of either. It's enough to make you cry in your Lite beer."
Guitar Player was more generous, observing in a 1997 article on trends in roots music that although the new Jayhawks sound has "a fair amount of twang" there are "heavier guitar textures with a distinct pop sensibility" in the songs. "Some long times Jayhawks fans may view Sound of Lies as a disavowal of the band's earlier, rootsier sound, but Louris sees it as part of an evolutionary process. 'I'm not throwing everything away," he said to Dan Epstein. "We just felt like making a record like this I'm not saying everything else we made was crap because it wasn't. Four out of five of the people who were in the band are still here. We still make similar sounds, but maybe in a different genre.'"
Soon after he made that statement, Louris was looking for a new keyboard player. Grotberg decided to leave the band to attend to raising her child. Jen Gunderman, who had played with the group Dag, filled the spot for the group's next recording. Smile was another attempt in the pop vein, but it failed to connect with audiences.
But Louris returned to roots music with a desire to focus on songwriting and to "play it as simple as possible." About this same time, he and others in the band were moonlighting with Dan Murphy (Soul Asylum) and Jeff Tweedy (ex-Uncle Tupelo, Wilco) in the band Golden Smog.
Despite this persevering attitude on Louris's part, the band was still failing to connect with a larger audience. The group changed labels in 2002. With the label change, the band became a quartet. The Jayhawks now consisted of Louris, Perlman, O'Reagan and Stephen McCarthy, a new guitarist. The group began preparing to record a new album.
Reconnected with Fans and Critics
Sensible Sound called 2003's Rainy Day Music "hands-down the best album" of 2003. "There's a lot of good stuff out there right now. Some are Rainy Day Music's equal--none its superior." Canadian reviewer Ron Foley MacDonald, writing in the Halifax Daily News described the album in contrast with Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to outline what these seminal so-called alt-country bands had been doing in more recent years. He found commonalities with The Beatles, The Byrds, and The Eagles. He said the songs "are all sharply constructed examples of superb pop craftsmanship. Each boasts a strong melody, building into a catchy and unforgettable chorus. The sounds is based around a cool, clear balance between acoustic and electric instruments." Adding that the musicianship has "a kind of discipline ... that most groups can only dream about."
Entertainment Weekly's Will Hermes noted in an April 2003 article, the Jayhawks remain "veteran poster kids for how major labels fail some of the most talented artists" having "endured nearly 20 years of tough breaks." But Hermes observed that although the new music is good "one misses the old guitar fireworks and even the lush pop-craft. It's almost as if, freed to be themselves, the Jayhawks need to refigure who they are, or want to be."
by Ed Decker and Linda Dailey Paulson
The Jayhawks's Career
Group formed in Minneapolis, MN, 1985; released debut album, The Jayhawks, Bunkhouse, 1986; group disbanded briefly after Louris sustained serious injuries in a car accident, 1988; released Blue Earth, Twin Tone, 1989; signed to Def American and released Hollywood Town Hall, 1992; opened for the Black Crowes and toured extensively in the United States, Great Britain, and Europe; appeared at Farm Aid VI; released Tomorrow the Green Grass, 1995; endured numerous personnel changes starting with the departure of Olson in 1995; Sound of Lies released, 1997; changed labels, 2002; Rainy Day Music released, 2003.
- Selected discography
- The Jayhawks Bunkhouse, 1986.
- Blue Earth Twin Tone, 1989; re-released with bonus material, Restless, 2003.
- Hollywood Town Hall Def American, 1992.
- Tomorrow the Green Grass American, 1995.
- Sound of Lies American, 1997.
- Smile American/Columbia, 2000.
- Rainy Day Music American/Lost Highway, 2003.
- Wolff, Kurt, Country Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, 2000.
- Billboard, January 7, 1995; April 15, 2000; April 26, 2003.
- Entertainment Weekly, December 25, 1992; April 28, 1995; April 25, 1997; April 11, 2003.
- Guitar Player, February 1993; April 1995; August 1997.
- Halifax Daily News, April 27, 2003.
- Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 1, 2001.
- Metro Times (Detroit, MI), April 28, 1993.
- Musician, June 1995.
- Rolling Stone, December 15, 1994.
- Sensible Sound, January-February 2004.
- "The Jayhawks," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 24, 2004).
- The Jayhawks Official Website, http://www.thejayhawks.com (March 24, 2004).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from American Recordings publicity materials, 1995, and from a feature on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, May 4, 2003.
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