When is a Jayhawk not a Jayhawk?
For Mark Olson – co-founder and, for a time, co-lead singer/songwriter for the fabled Americana band The Jayhawks – it can be when passion is reignited for the folkish, alt-country music he walked away from in 1995. While he is again recording and touring with fellow Jayhawks chieftain Gary Louris, the music they are now creating is, in essence, something entirely new.
“It’s sort of a brand new beginning in a way,” Olson said by phone last weekend from his Joshua Tree, Calif. home. “When we started in The Jayhawks, Gary and I would always get together and write songs on acoustic guitars. Then we would go play them with the band and the music would change. Now we’re writing songs together, again on acoustic guitars. Only this time, we just went in and played them that way in a studio.”
As one of the featured acts in this weekend’s Christ the King Oktoberfest, the longtime fall community event which received a wildly popular musical makeover in 2006, Louris and Olson will play one of only three national shows they have scheduled as a duo this year. But don’t think either has been idle of late.
After resuming their artistic partnership in 2005, the two recorded an album of new songs in early 2007 called Ready for the Flood. But when album’s release was delayed, both refocused on solo recordings – Olson on his novella-like The Salvation Blues and Louris on his more Jayhawks-savvy Vagabonds. Ready for the Flood, which was produced by Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson (as was Vagabonds) is now slated for an early 2009 release.
But that isn’t all that has fanned the flames of the Jayhawks faithful. As recently as two weekends ago, the entire mid ‘90s lineup of the band (Louris, Olson, bassist Marc Perlman, keyboardist Karen Grotberg and drummer Tim O’Reagan) reunited for a full concert at the Azkena Rock Festival in Vitoria, Spain.
“It was great,” Olson said of the performance. “We rehearsed two days, although we all worked on the songs prior to that. We did basically everything from the Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass albums (the 1992 and 1995 recordings that solidified much of The Jayhawks’ international fanbase). There were lots of other bands there that night, including Los Lobos and Dinosaur Jr. They were telling us, ‘Hey, you guys sounded great’ and ‘Way to go.’ It was really fun.”
Olson’s alliance with Louris began in Minneapolis. After forming the Jayhawks with Perlman in 1985, the band strived to find a niche within the musically fertile metropolis to fit into.
“We had listened to the Flying Burrito Brothers and to soul music, gospel and early country and blues – music that spoke to a real tradition. But when we first came out, it was almost like we were a little out of time.
“There were these two major scenes in Minneapolis – the rock scene and the folk/country scene. We worked within both of them and began making records and writing songs together. There’s no book on how to write songs. Well, I’m sure there is, now that I think about it. But most people work songs out for themselves. That’s what Gary and I did. It was almost like there was a sort of hands-on carpentry to what we were doing. We worked on the songs together and we worked on how to sing harmonies together.”
Curiously, The Jayhawks had just scored a breakthrough hit with the harmony rich Blue when Olson left the band to pursue homier folk sounds with then-wife Victoria Williams in the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers.
“With the Creekdippers, I played more of a supporting role. I started playing different instruments – specifically bass and piano. That was my post-Jayhawks experience until I made my own record (The Salvation Blues). The music had become more about growing in a direction where I wasn’t a lead vocal person. But when I came back to playing acoustic guitar, and, especially, to writing with Gary, there was this whole new desire to play that music again.”
Olson also has a good handle on the workings of Oktoberfest. Festival co-organizer Kevin Wilson has featured him the last two years at the event without Louris, although Olson’s 2007 visit included a brief impromptu jam with several of the festival’s other guests. Among them: longtime pal and fellow Joshua Tree dweller Tim Easton, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Minus 5 frontman Scott McCaughey.
“Kevin really seems to have a taste that runs to the kind of music I play,” Olson said. “And what he has come up with there in Kentucky is a really wonderful festival. I wish there were more like it in the country.
“There are always lots of people that come to hear all the music. But when I went into the bingo tent last year after my set… man, that’s where the real action was. It just brings a smile to your face. There are children running around outside having a great time. When you get down to it, the festival is just good clean fun.”
Gary Louris and Mark Olson perform at 1 p.m. Saturday as part of the Christ the King Oktoberfest, 299 Colony Blvd. Admission is free. Call: (859) 268-2861. Olson will also perform a program of folk-oriented children’s music at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Here is the complete Oktoberfest lineup…
Today – J.D. Crowe and the New South (4 p.m.); Tim Krekel (5 p.m.); A.A. Bondy (6 p.m.); The Felice Brothers (6:30 p.m.); Todd Snider (7:30 p.m.); The Sam Bush Band (9:30 p.m.).
Saturday – Children’s Music Hour with Mark Olson featuring traditional American folk songs (11 am); Slo-Fi (12 noon); Gary Louris and Mark Olson (1 pm); Andy Mason and Friends (2:30 p.m.); Ed McClanahan reading (3:15 p.m.); Born Cross Eyed (3:30 p.m.); Peter Rowan (5:00 p.m.); Paul Burch (6:00 p.m.); Justin Townes Earle (7:00 p.m.); Tim Easton (8:00 p.m.); The Yonders (9:00 p.m.); 8 Days a Week (Beatles tribute, 10:00 p.m.).