Though the roots of Americana go back decades, it was the early 1990s when the sounds we love started to coalesce into a proto-genre. Generally viewed then as alt-country, two bands on the same circuit emerged and got picked up by major labels, and sparked the alt-country boom in the late 90s from which Americana emerged as the 21st Century force that we love. If Uncle Tupelo were more alt than country and carried the cool edge, the The Jayhawks were more country than alt, and gloriously had the harmonies.
Formed in Minneapolis in 1985, the core songwriting duo of Mark Olsen and Gary Louris brought out a couple of minor label albums before being discovered by Rick Rubin’s protege George Drakoulias, who was already having massive success with The Black Crowes. He produced ‘Hollywood Town Hall,’ The Jayhawks first classic album. Fuzzy and folky and beautiful, it was followed by the almost equally good ‘Tomorrow The Green Grass.’ Which is where peak Jayhawks essentially ended. It didn’t sell well, had been very expensive to make, and after they toured it, they split. Olsen left for a new life and married fellow singer /songwriter Victoria Williams. ‘Miss Williams’ Guitar’ from ‘Tomorrow The Green Grass’ is a glorious song, with stunning guitar tones, but it’s tempting to view it as their ‘Ballad of John & Yoko?’ It might be a stretch to see Olsen /Louris as the Lennon /McCartney of early Americana, but they made some wonderful music together and are still revered. “A dream team sundered” is how esteemed Rolling Stone writer Davis Fricke described it after Olsen quit The Jayhawks “stranding his group in what-might-have-been-land”
Louris and bandmates continued to make Jayhawks albums, with ‘Sound Of Lies,’ ‘Smile’ and ‘Rainy Day Music’ all loved by fans, before a hiatus in 2004. When they reformed in 2009, a divorced Olsen rejoined “for the money,”but it didn’t end well, with both parties travelling separately between gigs until a confrontation after a 2012 festival in Spain, where Louris challenged Olsen publicly with “Why don’t you hit me?” Olsen thus left The Jayhawks for the second time, and Louris went into rehab. Sad, but don’t all the great bands have ‘creative tension?’
After recovery, Louris reconvened The Jayhawks minus Olsen, and they still tour and produce new music. They were recently the saving grace of Ray Davies’ ‘Americana’ project. Still revered, The Jayhawks music continues to bring warmth and pleasure. Re-listening to it all for this article was a joy.
The career: Ten studio albums, three live albums, one compilation.
Key release: Fans may choose ‘Hollywood Town Hall,’ for its iconic album cover if nothing else, but ‘Music from the North Country – The Jayhawks Anthology’ has twenty tracks from the key 1992-2004 era which are genuinely all good. Many artistes have one key track, but all Jayhawks fans would disagree about faves as there are so many to choose from. So I’ll throw this in from the last great album, feel free to disagree.