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Alone Together

For songwriters Victoria Williams and Mark Olson, the fast lane ends in Joshua Tree

Moonlight. Mark Olson is staring at the moon, now hovering low in the early evening sky above the desert floor of Joshua Tree, California. He's staring, unshaven and in rumpled khakis, not to howl or scratch or bay or even to contemplate, but to find Mars and Saturn, brightly flanking the moon -- right where the morning paper promised they'd be.

"There, Vic," he tells his wife, "you can see the planets now."
Marching behind him down the rocky hill just outside the house and recording studio they've named Chaparral Bottoms, Victoria Williams has her eyes cast down toward the brush at her feet. She's talking about tea, cowboy tea or Mormon tea or squaw tea or whatever it is the locals call the syrupy brew made from this same brush, stretching endlessly to the horizon. Williams snaps off a twig, examines the dry redness inside and puts it to her tongue. "Tastes like doctor's office," she says with a sour look.

Chaparral Bottoms is only a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, but it's far enough from the city and its airwaves and microwaves to provide periods of simplicity and solitude. Which is exactly what the two were looking for when they bought the house four years ago. As her picturesque, understated songs would suggest, the Louisiana-born Williams thrives on such seclusion. For Olson, the move provided an escape from the labels, lawyers, managers, tour schedules, overwhelming debt and unmet expectations that he endured for a decade as a primary songwriter in the Jayhawks, the critically acclaimed Minnesota band he quit in 1995.

In Joshua Tree, the couple appears to have found their ideal medium, a place to function comfortably outside the rigors of the music business while still being granted access. And they've been able to have it both ways: Williams remains an acclaimed and prized artist for the Atlantic label, which released her Musings of a Creekdipper CD last month. Olson, meanwhile, is selling his first solo project, The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, out of a back bedroom here via mail order and his web site.

Back in 1995, when the Jayhawks released Tomorrow the Green Grass on American Recordings, the band's debt was approaching $1 million. Now, with only modest sales, Olson's solo disc has already broken even.

"With the Jayhawks, it was the carrot and the stick kind of deal," he says. "I was happy with the music we made, and I was into playing, but there were expectations. And I wasn't happy being in something that was below the expectations."

At the heart of both Creekdipper releases is what Bob Dylan has taken to calling "old-timey music": the eternal folk elements of an acoustic guitar, some thoughtful words and a well-crafted harmony. But while Olson (joined on his disc by Williams and fiddler Mike "Razz" Russell) chooses simple acoustic arrangements that fall squarely within the No Depression zeitgeist, Williams's muse just as often manifests itself through torch songs and tracks as festive as show tunes.

So, despite the similarity in titles and a shared love song ("Hummingbird"), the two releases are strikingly different. And that is true even if many of the songs began life here at homey Chaparral Bottoms, with Williams's high, loving drawl, or Olson's warm and reedy voice serenading their three large dogs, Ruby, Mollie and Solo.

Williams was the first to travel out to the desert. For two years, she rented a cabin in nearby Pioneer Town, in search of peace and solitude. After she married Olson four years ago, they found this house and still haven't bothered to hook up the cable to the television that they now use solely to watch videos of old movies.

"I'm a recluse at times, and that means a total recluse," says Williams, dressed in baggy denim overalls, her long, parted hair revealing a pouty smile. "Poor Mark can't even be around. It's like I have to be really alone. Then I like to go share what I found."

Williams is sipping hot Chaparral Bottoms tea, her own twist on the local brew, but with added ginger and licorice. ("Licorice is a natural antidepressant," she says.) As Olson finishes heating up the spicy gumbo dinner she prepared earlier in the kitchen, Williams settles onto a couch in the living room. She restlessly changes position as she speaks -- slouching, then sitting up, hugging a cushion, sliding to the floor -- as she describes the uncommon travails of making Musings of a Creekdipper with the multiple sclerosis that still constricts her life. The erratic nature of the muscle disease means that though she marched easily up and down the hill this afternoon, six months ago she could barely walk.

"I've been through a lot in the last two years. I had some bad attacks of it where I couldn't walk or anything," she says, sitting right beside the old tube equipment and handmade microphones of the home studio. "I lost some friends. Just life experiences, as far as going through any of those exasperations where you don't know if you're ever going to walk again. Is this going to last? Am I going to walk again? All those kinds of scary thoughts that make you think past the mortal coil that we are in -- the fact that we're all going to die. So strengthening the old spirit's been good."

At moments like these, Williams's mood can quickly turn from the silly to the contempla-tive and spiritual. Likewise, her new CD's "Grandpa in the Cornpatch" describes the waning years of a man after a lifetime of chores for his family: "Now he's hanging in the shade, enjoying this last leg of his earthly life / Learning to rest, soon he'll fly."

In a few minutes, the couple is sitting over bowls of gumbo and cornbread. Williams talks lovingly of Atlantic, pausing only to fill a hypodermic needle for her daily shot. Her husband can only shake his head at memories of his own big-label experience and a little band that had somehow grown into an expensive entourage of cast and crew that had to be kept afloat, putting the Jayhawks ever deeper into debt.

"We had good times, but when it got down to it, I just wanted to do something else," Olson says. "I didn't want to be this guy ... sitting in the van and complaining. I didn't quit the band for any reason other than I wanted to get out."

The subject of the Jayhawks, which Olson co-founded with singer/guitarist Gary Louris in the mid-'80s (and which, last year, released a disc without Olson) leaves him with mixed feelings. He admits that, with the making of the Creekdipper releases and the chores and all, he hadn't given the subject much thought. And at times, his comments are gracious. ("I wish the best of luck to those guys -- I really do.") But without actually saying so, it's clear that he might have preferred the band continue under a different name without him.

"I'm really not that bothered," he insists. "What bothers me is when somebody says 'Man, that was really big of you not to put up a stink about the name.' Fuck that! I'll put up a stink if I want to put up a stink. I basically didn't have a choice. There's contracts."

Before Olson's departure, the Jayhawks came to symbolize many of the richest qualities of the so-called No Depression movement, playing country-flavored rock with dry elegance and moving vocal harmonies, much as Neil Young, Gram Parsons and the Band had several decades earlier. Despite wide critical acclaim and a large following as a touring unit, the Jayhawks never sold beyond the faithful; money became as much of an issue as music. Olson now downplays any reunion possibilities with the band he named back in Minnesota: "No, we had our run. It was pretty deep, some of the stuff over the years in Minnesota between us."

Williams looks up from her dinner. "You might someday change your tune."
"No, I don't think so," Olson says, shaking his head. "I'm not going to change my tune."

"You never know."
"My tune is set."
"You never know, Mark. You might find yourself in the same hall someday."

"I don't think those guys want to play with me, Vic. That's the impression I had."

"Ohhhhhhh, I don't think so. I think they would all love it."
Family memories are scattered everywhere at the couple's Joshua Tree homestead: the large black-and-white portrait of Williams's grandparents as newlyweds, looking more wild and vibrant than any Calvin Klein ad; the refrigerator covered with snapshots of nieces and nephews. In a few weeks, Olson will be joining Williams on a visit to Shreveport, Louisiana, where her family has long since accepted the musical career path she's chosen.

It wasn't so long ago -- in the years following her arrival in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1980s -- that the folks back home were taking a dim view of her life out west and the business she had involved herself in -- particularly after the end of her marriage to singer/songwriter Peter Case later that decade. Come back home! Go find yourself a good husband! Go back to school and become a French interpreter or something else respectable!

Now, she'll be bringing Musings of a Creekdipper, talking of her life and marriage in Joshua Tree, about recording a little at home, a little at studios in Joshua Tree and Oxnard, California, north of L.A.

"Maybe someday I'll experiment with some other things," she says in a slow drawl. "Might as well. Nothing else to do.

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