In the Age of Coronavirus, bands releasing new records are facing challenges unlike those at any other time. The grinding halt of much of the industry leaves a lot of time for musicians to stay at home to pursue interest of both musical and non-musical variety. That includes Karen Grotberg of the Jayhawks.
“Well I’ll tell you…I’m getting a lot of gardening done!” she laughs. “There is an element of the unreal about it all. Normally, we’re out and about doing in-stores and shows. But we don’t even have Netflix anymore – my daughter tells me I’m missing all sorts of things! But I’m also swimming and going up into my room and trying to write with a pen in my hand and blank pages.”
The Jayhawks have just released their eleventh studio album, XOXO (Sham/Thirty Tigers) with the current lineup of founding members Gary Louris (lead vocals/guitar) and Marc Perlman (bass), along with longtime members Tim O’Reagan (drums), and Grotberg (keyboards/vocals).
But what makes XOXO different from any previous Jayhawks record is that all four members contribute songs and share lead vocal duties, the majority of both of those jobs normally filled by Louris.
“Gary did announce that he was opening it up for everyone to present their own material. He’s always been democratic on that sense, but [moreso] on this particular album,” Grotberg says, noting that he had also just wrapped up an upcoming second solo record. “He’s always been encouraging. I thought I might have more new material, but in the end I drew on some older songs.”
Both of Grotberg’s gentle, dreamlike contributions – “Ruby” and “Across My Field” date back to the ‘90s, and the band had even previously recorded both and performed the former live. “Ruby” is a tribute to the woman who was “like a second mother” to Grotberg growing up, the wife of her mother’s boss who helped raise her as both her parents worked.
“[Ruby] was just a wonderful woman who I loved dearly. I know it sounds like there are death overtones, and it was written toward to the end of her life,” Grotberg says. “But to me it’s a love song. She had an amazing love story with her husband who was in World War II and they were married on Valentine’s Day.”
“’Across My Field” is about her time living in Wisconsin many years ago. “It’s just bits and pieces of a lot of different things in my head at the time. I was living alone in a two room place. But I did have running water!” she laughs. “And it was across a hay field. That was written in the quiet time, when you’re channeling something deep.” A bonus track on the first CD pressings, the relationship-based “Jewel of the Trimbelle,” is her third contribution. The title refers to a city and river in Wisconsin that she once lived near.
In fact, with her songs, lead/background/harmony vocals, and the prominence of her piano throughout, XOXO is definitely the most “Karen-centric” of any Jayhawks record to date. Not that she really knows that yet.
“I’ll listen to it as soon as I get a copy! Maybe I’ll go and buy one, to support the band!” she laughs. Wait, so an actual bandmember doesn’t have a physical copy of her own album, a week and a half after its release? The answer is…no.
Louris, O’Reagan, and Perlman’s contributions show a variety in sound (pop/rock/alt-country/ballads). And lyrically, touch on media (“Living in a Bubble,” “Society Pages”), environmentalism (“Homecoming”), tainted nostalgia (“Dogtown Days” “Looking Up Your Number,” “Bitter Pill”), demagoguery (“Illuminate”), families (“Little Victories”), and shadows of death (“Down to the Farm”).
The Jayhawks formed in 1985 with the lineup of Mark Olson and Gary Louris (both on vocals/guitar), Marc Perlman (bass), and Norm Rogers (drums). And while their hometown of Minneapolis was better known as a hotbed of post-punk (The Replacements, Hüsker Dü) or funk (Prince and his stable), the Jayhawks were making a name in the then-nascent (depending on your preferred term) “roots,” “No Depression,” or “alt country” scene.
O'Reagan, Perlman, Grotberg, and Louris hope to get back on the road...at some point.
Photo by Tim Geaney/Courtesy of Missing Piece Group
A decade later, they were poised to break big with the album Tomorrow the Green Grass and the shimmering, soaring single “Blue.” Its key attraction was the well-oiled and unique sound of Olson and Louris’ blended vocals (it was also Grotberg’s first record with the band).
But – like the Drive-By Truckers – critical acclaim and a dedicated fan base didn’t necessarily lead to commercial success.
Olson departed and the Jayhawks – now led by Louris – expanded its sonic palette over the years to rock (Sound of Lies), British Invasion-inflected pop (Smile), back to Americana (Rainy Day Music), and even the arty/experimental (Paging Mr. Proust).
A reunion album and tour with Olson didn’t go well for anyone involved. Other members came and went and came back, including Grotberg who took some years off to raise her daughter.
“I like that the records sound [different]. We worked on a lot of the songs in the studio together for this one, like we did on Paging Mr. Proust. And it hasn’t always been like that,” she says. “On this one, we live together for two weeks in the same house [while recording], and that was interesting. Everyone was more equally represented.”
In a recent Rolling Stone article, Jonathan Bernstein called the Jayhawks “Americana’s most underappreciated band,” adding “the band has always been too pop-oriented, and too British Invasion-influenced, for its strict country-folk peers, while being too rootsy for its Nineties alternative contemporaries.”
And in a lengthy piece on Grammy.com, Morgan Enos concurs. “The Jayhawks exist in an awkward limbo — too rootsy for experimental rock fans, too left-field for those with a closetful of Western snap shirts.”
That description is not lost on the band members, and maybe it’s that variety that has been at least a bit responsible for their longevity.
“There was a point where you wonder about the timing. Like ‘Why wasn’t “Blue” a hit?’” Grotberg says. “We probably all felt that at some point. But right now, I don't think about that, I really don't. I feel lucky. I mean, I’m over 60, we have a brand new record of original material, and we’re coming on strong. We’re not playing large arenas but frankly, the sound is better in some of the clubs! Our fans are also very loving and loyal, and we get great crowds with great energy.”
Recent years have been kind to Jayhawks fans. They’ve rolled out reissues for many of their albums – packed with extra demos, alternate takes, unreleased songs and rarities. They also just partnered with the Live Music Archive to host 157 different live recordings for streaming and downloading – all for free.
Recently, the quartet did get together in person at least once, performing in a backyard for a CBS Saturday Morning mini-concert. And then filmed individual performances for a Rough Trade Records virtual in-store.
Meanwhile, Karen Grotberg checks the mail each day for the package that will include her own copy of XOXO.
“I do have the song files on DropBox, but you always have to start and stop them!” she laughs. “I did play it for my sister when we took a car trip recently. And I had a Bluetooth speaker, but I still had to load the songs individually!”
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE...
Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.