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Music

The Jayhawks Not Searching For Lost Time

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Heidi Ehalt
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The Jayhawks formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1985, bringing together Gary Louris and Mark Olson, who would write the lion’s share of material for the group over the coming decade. Bassist Marc Perlman was also in the ranks and points out that although the Minneapolis scene was teeming with high-energy, punk-influenced bands such as The Replacements, Soul Asylum and Hüsker Dü, the city also boasted Prince and Trip Shakespeare (which would morph into Semisonic).

“There wasn’t really a sound,” he says, speaking from his home in the Mill City. “There wasn’t a Minneapolis sound. People thought of The Replacements and Hüsker Dü but, to me, those bands are very dissimilar. Every band had its unique sound. It wasn’t us trying to fit into any niche. It was really the struggle for any band which is just trying to find an audience.”

Finding that audience, Perlman recalls, didn’t prove too problematic. There were plenty of places to play and music lovers who were only too glad to hear live music. He points to the Uptown Bar, The 400 Bar and the city’s venerable 7th Street Entry as critical to the scene. “Really, it was up to the bands to get on the phone and call on their friends to fill the place,” he says. “We picked up a following pretty quick. Not a big one but one that would keep us together.”

The group, rounded out by drummer Norm Rogers, took to the studio not long after forming and, in 1986, issued a self-titled LP. Nicknamed the Bunkhouse Tapes by stalwart fans, the record has some undeniable charms, including well-crafted songs such as “One True Love” and “Let the Critics Wonder.” There is a certain tentativeness to the recordings, the sound of a group still trying to find its legs that, although endearing, suggests that the group may have committed to recording too early.

Almost from the start, The Jayhawks became a band familiar with setbacks and turmoil. Just as the group was making progress in the local scene, Louris was injured in an auto accident and left the band for a period. He returned in time for the release of 1989’s Blue Earth. Issued on the sturdy Twin/Tone imprint, the record drew some fire for its rough, demo-ish sound. It also started earning the group acclaim outside the Twin Cities.

“It got us a following among the hardcore music fans around the country,” Perlman says. “We were able to tour outside the Midwest for the first time. But it was really Hollywood Town Hall that started us doing this as a fulltime career. For a while at least.”

Released in 1992, that third record appeared on Rick Rubin’s American label. Though music historians often suggest that the era was flooded with grunge music and little else, bands such as The Jayhawks, the Black Crowes and Uncle Tupelo were part of a burgeoning roots-oriented sound that was finding purchase among listeners. These were bands who had grown up on or had immersed themselves in soul music, The Carter Family and the more intriguing reaches of the Everly Brothers as much as the sounds of Faces and The Kinks. Though they often wore these influences proudly, they remained unafraid of incorporating contemporary sensibilities.

Hollywood Town Hall boasted two of the band’s best compositions, “Waiting For The Sun,” which fused folk and psychedelia with something that kicked harder than either, and “Wichita,” one of many pieces in the band’s early output that proved the group wasn’t exactly the country rock outfit some wanted it to be. Olson’s penchant for Americana was tempered by Louris’s appreciation for artier fare and the tension of those two concerns would reach its apex on 1995’s Tomorrow The Green Grass.

Armed with gorgeous vocal harmonies and songs that touched on themes of love and loneliness (“Blue,” “Over My Shoulder”), the record also featured a moving portrait of child neglect (“Ann Jane”). The group showed that it could be earnest and still kick the door down, as evidenced by “Real Light” and “Miss Williams’ Guitar” (written about singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, whom Olson would marry and later divorce). The group, by then rounded out with keyboardist extraordinaire Karen Grotberg, tackled the Grand Funk hit “Bad Time” with zeal and a commitment that improved upon the original.

Tomorrow the Green Grass may have found an audience among hipper radio programmers and critics, but it still didn’t break the break the band into the mainstream. Still, there was promise, but some of that seemed to dim, at least momentarily, when Olson announced he was leaving.

Today, Perlman says that he wasn’t entirely surprised by the move. “There’s a huge range to the word ‘success’ and sometimes people find that it wasn’t what they expected. At that time, we’d been together for 10 years. That’s a pretty long time in band years. I think, at that time, it was really a matter of musical taste. We were all going in different directions.”

There was a debate about whether the band would continue and even if it should continue under The Jayhawks banner. “There was a lot of discussion about that,” Perlman recalls. “There were disagreements and different attitudes. In the end, Gary’s argument was the sanest one: We’d all been doing it for a while. We earned the right to have that name and people had understood that was what we were doing musically.”

The stubbornness in that decision is also evident on 1997’s dark and comparatively heavy The Sound of Lies. Louris’ writing took center stage and he wrote from a place that blended soul-searching with bite, especially via “The Man Who Loved Life,” “Think About It” (a co-write with Perlman) and the title track. The reaction, the bassist recalls, was “mixed for various reasons. And it still is, and it became even more so when Smile came out.”

Released in 2000, Smile boasted production work from Bob Ezrin, whose previous credits included Alice Cooper, Kiss and Pink Floyd. For Perlman, who shares writing credit on roughly half the album, the experience remains among the best he’s had with The Jayhawks. “It was a real pleasure,” the bassist says. “He opened us up to a lot of to a lot of different possibilities, and I think it came through.”

Ezrin had been called a taskmaster by various artists, but Perlman’s praise for the Canadian producer remains unwavering. “Like any good producer, he understands the band that he’s working with. He understands what needs to be done,” Perlman notes. “And maybe what doesn’t need to be done. At the point that he got to work with us, I think we had really gotten our sound together, and we also knew our way around the studio so much more than we had in the past. “He wasn’t a taskmaster in that sense,” he adds. “It was more about opening ourselves up.”

Smile was met with some skepticism in the press. For all those who loved its unapologetic uplift, there were others who derided it as too cheerful. When the group set about making a follow-up, there was only Louris, Perlman and drummer Tim O’ Reagan left in the band. That next record, Rainy Day Music sold well, though sales didn’t prevent the core members from placing The Jayhawks on ice the following year.

Over the next few years, Louris and Perlman spent time together in the band Golden Smog and Louris reunited with Mark Olson for some duo gigs. There were plenty of people clamoring for a reunion and the core group from the Tomorrow The Green Grass era soon conceded. The lineup (which included Grotberg and O’Reagan) emerged with 2011’s Mockingbird Time. It was well received but coming the following year stories of disharmony in the ranks were widespread.

The chemistry that had been present at the start, and the musical tension that had led the group to such artistic highs, no longer worked. Olson returned to his solo career while the remaining members teamed up at LP.ORG and appeared on a tribute release to former Replacements’ guitarist Slim Dunlap in late 2013. By early the next year, there was news that The Jayhawks would perform once more, diving deep into post-Olson releases such as Smile and The Sound of Lies.

Still, there was some question as to what the future would hold. Louris didn’t know if there could or should be a Jayhawks in the future. “Our attitude is, and has been for a long time, that we’ll record a record when we have a record to record. We just didn’t have a record,” Perlman says. “You can’t force it.” Louris continued to write and ultimately called Perlman to see what he thought of the new songs that were emerging. “I think he was thinking about a solo record. But he asked me to come over and see if anything he’d written could be Jayhawks’ songs. That other ear helped him make up his mind that those songs could work with the band. That’s when the shift kind of happened.”

The result was 2016’s Paging Mr. Proust, a record that drew on some of Louris’ artier influences while sacrificing none of his signature approach to melody. Co-produced by former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, Louris and Tucker Martine (whose previous credits include Neko Case, Sufjan Stevens and others), the album was once more received warmly by the press, with some calling it the band’s best effort in over a decade.

Surveying the long run that The Jayhawks have had, Perlman suggests that the determination and stubbornness (read: longevity) can, in part, be attributed to the outfit’s solid, Midwestern roots.

“The bands that started at around the same time as us, or a little before, The Replacements, Soul Asylum, were around for a long time before people outside Minneapolis got to hear them,” Perlman says. “So there is something that’s unique to musicians that came out of here. We have a different sense of work ethic than a lot of other places. That and the idea that success doesn’t define if your band is any good and if your band is any good it’s a shame to throw it away just because you don’t sell a lot of records.”

The Jayhawks performs at The Stiefel Theatre in Salina on Friday evening with Split Lip Rayfield opening.

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Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

 
To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.