Lost Tuneage

Lost Tuneage: The Jayhawks

Who 'Dat?

Emerging from "The City of Lakes" in 1985, the Jayhawks showed that Minneapolis could produce a band at the forefront of another genre besides pioneering alt-rock (The Replacements, Hüsker Dü) and funk (the Purple One); namely, the nascent alt-country/"No Depression" movement. Named as a nod to the Band's original moniker - the Hawks - and not the bird, the original lineup included Mark Olson (vocals/acoustic guitar), Gary Louris (vocals/electric guitar), Marc Perlman (bass), and Norm Rogers (drums).

The next year the band released The Jayhawks (aka "The Bunkhouse Album," after the small label that released it). It showcased the Olson/Louris harmony vocals that would become the group's most identifiable characteristic. Rogers soon left the lineup to be replaced by Thad Spencer, and near-fatal car crash took Louris out temporarily. 1989's Blue Earth (Twin/Tone) was a collection of polished demos. Def American producer George Drakoulias heard the album playing in the background during a call to the Twin/Tone offices, and became intrigued with the band.

What happened?

The original trio and new drummer Ken Callahan did indeed jump to the label, recording two classics with 1993's Hollywood Town Hall - which produced a hit in "Waiting for the Sun" - and then, with fourth drummer and songwriter Tim O'Reagan and keyboardist Karen Grotberg, 1995's Tomorrow the Green Grass (another hit, "Blue"). Both records leaned toward a more rock sound, though Louris continued to play pedal steel sounds on his guitar. Buzz on the band was building.

But just when greater success seemed within reach, Olson delivered a shocker by announcing his departure, mainly to make more folk-sounding music with wife Victoria Williams. After deciding to soldier on as the Jayhawks and tapping O'Reagan to take over some of Olson's vocal duties, Louris and a shifting lineup for both studio and stage released the darker/psychedelia of Sound of Lies, and then tested the waters of power pop with Smile.

Both were ambitious and full of merit, especially Smile and its breakout song "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," and the group eventually returned to more of their original sound with the stripped-down, highly underrated Rainy Day Music in 2003. But by the next year, the Jayhawks had their wings clipped.

Why Should I Care?

While acts like Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown and the Bottle Rockets may have gotten more coverage, the sheer quality of the Jayhawks' music and the talents of its lineup were undeniable. And even when they jumped genres, there was plenty to admire. The Village Voice dubbed them "the only country-rock band that matters," and a review of Smile in The New York Times was headlined "What If You Made a Classic and No One Cared?"

Where Are They Now?

Olson and wife Williams formed The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers and produced several records. The couple split in 2005, and Olson released The Salvation Blues. Louris split time between playing and recording with "supergroup" Golden Smog, which also included Perlman and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and solo effort Vagabonds.

O'Reagan had a measure of success as a solo performer (Tim O'Reagan), and Perlman performs with musical partner Janey Winterbauer (25:32:47). Louris and Olson reunited in 2005 for a series of shows, and released a collaborative folkish record under their own names, Ready for the Flood, earlier this year with more tour dates including a SXSW stop.

As for the Jayhawks as a group, the classic 1995 lineup reunited for a one-off Spanish gig in 2008. The band has done a handful of shows since then, including one to celebrate the recent release of two-disc anthology Music from the North Country. Sony/Legacy is also rumored to be announcing full-scale catalogue reissues with bonus tracks. So it seems that these birds may just take flight again...

Essential Listening, Surfing

Music from the North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology (2009): Your one-stop shopping outlet. Splurge for the deluxe edition that has one CD of tracks spanning all six "official" records (sorry, Bunkhouse fans), a second of outtakes/demos/unreleased numbers, and a DVD of videos, live performances, and interviews - including footage shot at SXSW 1997.

Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995): Their crowning studio achievement, with just the right blend of country and pop.

Live from the Women's Club, Vols. 1 & 2: Live acoustic recordings from a 2002 show with the trio of Louris/Perlman/O'Reagan, putting a different spin on familiar material.

www.jayhawksfanpage.com: With no official web page for the band, this incredibly exhaustive site is the must-stop with both historical and current information, run by a longtime superfan named Sandy.

Just announced! The Jayhawks now have an official home on the Internet at www.jayhawksofficial.com.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero