In the mid ’80s, before the term “alt-country” even existed, Minneapolis singer-songwriters Mark Olson and Gary Louris forged a partnership as dual frontmen for the Jayhawks that would inspire legions of other roots-rocking bands. Signed by Rick Rubin to American Recordings in 1991, their albums Hollywood Town Hall (1992) and Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995) brought their Byrds-like vocal blend and Gram Parsons-influenced country-rock tunes to a broader audience.
Olson left the band in 1996, then reconnected with Louris as a duo in 2001. And this year, they reformed their classic Green Grass-era lineup for a new album, Mockingbird Time, as well as a nationwide tour. In addition, the pioneering band will appear at the Americana Music Conference on Thursday night (Oct. 13) in Nashville.
In this interview, previously posted at MTV Hive, the Jayhawks look back at their flight log — from humble beginnings to hard-hitting breakup and rapturous reunion.
Louris: I was in a band before the Jayhawks called Safety Last, which was on Twin/Tone Records … a rockabilly band. Mark Olson and I knew each other because Mark had been in another rockabilly band called Stagger Lee. I missed the first two weeks of the Jayhawks. The first guitar player only lasted for two weeks.
Olson: I was trying to start this band, the Jayhawks. … We asked Gary to come up to the rehearsal space. And from there we started to learn songs and try to get gigs.
Louris: I was a total Anglophile, a mod guy, into the Beatles and the Who and the Kinks and anything British. Through Elvis‘ Sun Sessions, I got into country and bluegrass and soul and blues … that’s all mixed together, and that’s kind of what you hear in the Jayhawks.
Early Years (1985-1991)
Louris: We were friends with [fellow Minneapolis bands] Husker Du, Replacements, Soul Asylum … but I think we knew we couldn’t be another Husker Du or Replacements. They were great bands, some of my favorite bands of all time, but we didn’t have the scream, we didn’t have the anger. … It just wasn’t in our DNA.
Olson: I think just having that around, bands that were making albums and touring on a national level, was part of the reason we wanted to make an album after just playing in the bars for a year or so. We were definitely mid-tier … and that went on for a long time. We made a lot of demos and continued to play, put out our own records, eventually gave up on the major-label thing for a while. [Our second album] Blue Earth, that’s really kind of a collection of all these demos we made for major labels. We overdubbed on them and put out a record on Twin/Tone.
Full Flight (1992-1995)
Olson: I think what [Rick Rubin] said once was that we had a Creedence Clearwater feel, and he liked the singing and guitar playing. He came out to meet us all. That was our big break. From there, we made the [American Recordings] records and went over and toured in Europe quite a bit. That was the beginning of having a following.
Louris: It was really a grunge-dominated period. We were kind of swimming upstream. I think the tightest we felt as far as camaraderie was with the Black Crowes. The Black Crowes were on our label, they were having a lot of success, and they were kind of like big brothers. They were kind of like the Stones and we were kind of like the Byrds, I think that’s how America saw us. I knew Uncle Tupelo from Jeff [Tweedy] and Jay [Farrar] kind of following us around, wanting to jam. … We’ve been great friends ever since. Other than them, I didn’t know too many bands doing what we were doing.
Separate Ways (1996)
Olson: I think I kind of hit the wall. I had been out touring and in the band for about a decade. And, like everybody, when you reach a goal, in a way I felt like it wasn’t what I set out to do. And I think I was burnt, too. I decided to take drastic measures and change my life. I just decided to do what my heart felt like doing, which was just kind of a straight folk thing. … That’s basically what I did musically with the Creekdippers.
Louris: It was really a dark time for me personally, I was going through a divorce, and Olson left. It was a huge game-changer. He’s the guy who really started the band. And he and I developed a thing together where it was really left hand/right hand. We were pretty much joined at the hip. I knew something was bothering him, and he said, “I just can’t do this anymore. I have to get off the treadmill of the music business.” And he had just gotten married, and he wanted to be with his wife.
A Band Divided (1997-2001)
Louris: I remember thinking, “We’re gonna make [The Sound of Lies], and if people hate it, they hate it, but I’m not gonna pretend like Mark didn’t leave. We made a stylistic change. … We went for an artier approach, and I’m very proud of that record. It didn’t sell for s—, but it’s still, for some, I think, their favorite. But we didn’t talk for about five years. It was not so much of an anger thing. It’s just that we kind of both went on with our lives.
Olson: I wished him well and he wished me well, and we parted company. They went on, and I was fine with that. I was doing something that I felt was really good and gave me a lot of life. The Creekdippers, we toured in small folk clubs in Europe … There was a lot of moments that [singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, his former wife] and I shared. … I stayed in Europe for a while. I put out these two [solo] albums and kind of continued what I was doing with the Creekdippers, trying to find this weird world between folk and rock.
Mending Fences (2001-2010)
Louris: Eventually, we missed each other as musicians and as friends. Right after 9/11, I got a call — some film director wanted a new Mark Olson/Gary Louris song for their movie, and that kind of got us going. I went out to his house in the desert. We talked and talked and got any kind of misunderstandings out in the open, and in a matter of two hours, we were writing songs together. We’ve been working together ever since. It’s not like Roger Waters and David Gilmour or something like that. Mark and I genuinely like each other.
Olson: The song didn’t even end up in the movie … but that led to a reunion tour.
Louris: We did a tour playing old stuff, just me and him. And then we said, “Well, that’s nice, but we are songwriters. That’s what we do.” We did the [duo] folk record, and that led to this.
To Soar Once More (2011-?)
Louris: After every Olson & Louris show, people said, “Love it, love it. … When’s the band getting back together?” I personally kind of missed plugging in and getting electric. And all of the re-releases, of Hollywood Town Hall, Tomorrow the Green Grass … the profile of the Jayhawks rose a little bit, and to me, it signaled an opportunity to say, “It’s now or never. If we’re gonna make another record, this is the time to do it.”
The chemistry’s great, and the [new] songs were strong. We just had to get our wheels balanced. Once that happened, it was great. We’re a band. We’re not just Mark and Gary. One of the real driving forces to get this thing happening was finding out that [Jayhawks keyboardist] Karen Grotberg was available to tour and really wanted to do it. There’s a certain sound that we all get. After a while, you realize that this is something that doesn’t come around more than once. We were very lucky.
Olson: I feel like Ichabod Crane. I wake up and all of a sudden all these people like the music. You hit the stage, you play the first song, they know all the words! And that’s a product of the albums being out there for so many years and being well-loved. They [audiences] really like the new songs. We’ve tackled about seven of them, playing them live, and they all seem to go over real well. We have a whole range of music. It’s up and down and sideways, and that’s the way we like it. After all these years, we’re still exploring these things. It feels good to be a part of it again. And I’d like to be a part of that in the future, too.