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Dusting ‘Em Off: The Jayhawks – Tomorrow the Green Grass

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One could easily be forgiven for not knowing that The Jayhawks are from Minneapolis, that they formed in 1985, or that they even recorded for legendary hometown label Twin-Tone Records – all three known more for abrasive rock than alternative country. All I knew of Minneapolis at that time was Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Soul Asylum, and Prince with nary a mention of any Jayhawks. However, it was the band’s short-lived affiliation with Twin-Tone that led them to record what have since gone on to be considered the band’s two best albums. While on the phone with Twin-Tone, producer George Drakoulias overheard a copy of Blue Earth, an album of early demo tracks put together by Twin-Tone while The Jayhawks were on hiatus. Impressed with what he heard, he signed the band to American Records and produced both 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall and 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass.

When you hear the chorus to opening track “Blue” today, you might say, “Oh my God, that’s The Jayhawks?” knowing the song but unfortunately having forgotten the artist. (The same could be said for other single “Bad Time”.) I must admit that I haven’t listened to Tomorrow the Green Grass in its entirety since the late ‘90s, so upon hitting play I was pleasantly reminded of who The Jayhawks were. With the gentle dual strumming opening the album, Mark Olson and Gary Louris’ coupled singing begins soft only to jump up a notch with the second stanza as the band’s rhythm section kicks in. The chorus soon follows, and then the pair hit that note with “And you made me feel so Blue…”  Add the strings and “Wow.”

A nicety associated with revisiting older albums is that sometimes something comes out of left field. In “I’d Run Away”, a mid-tempo number following “Blue”, as the song’s end approached, I found myself reminded of the final 45 seconds of Broken Social Scene’s “It’s All Gonna Break” with the passionate onslaught of horns and percussion. And as odd as that may sound, the next track, “Miss Williams’ Guitar”, sounds as if Robyn Hitchcock had been channeled. Written by Olson for his soon-to-be, if not already, girlfriend, Victoria Williams (who would later be his wife and ex-wife), “Miss Williams’ Guitar” is an up-tempo, slightly rocking number. The song is fun from the get go and is clearly written from the point of view of somebody quite smitten: “I remember watching her play, and the whole damn crowd seemed so far away.” The flow of “Miss Williams’ Guitar” is classic Hitchcock sans the dry wit and even has elements of  Perspex Islands“So You Think You’re In Love” lingering about. Before you roll your eyes, revisit the song, and keep in mind that Hitchcock was channeling The Byrds in his song.

The addition of keyboardist Karen Grotberg to the lineup adds an elegant touch to The Jayhawks. Having the daunting task of following Nicky Hopkins and Benmont Tench (founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), both of whom appeared on Hollywood Town Hall, Grotberg not only stepped up to the plate but even manages to make you forget about the earlier studio vets. Her delicate touch on the ivories blends elements of Hopkins with rolling cadences often found with The Band’s Richard Manuel, strongly evident on tracks like “Red’s Song”.

Continuing with the name-drops, “Ten Little Kids” comes off as a cross between the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” and Big Star’s “In the Street”, “Two Hearts” might be a more up-tempo Uncle Tupelo track, and “Over My Shoulder” could easily be seen as an indirect influence on Tupelo offshoot Wilco’s first two releases. That being said, nobody is stealing from anyone, but rather, the nature of the material simply lends itself to such comparison.

If there was obvious joy heard in Olson’s voice when singing “Miss Williams’ Guitar”, from the very first lines of “Bad Time”, “I’m in love with the girl that I’m talking about/I’m in love with the girl that I can’t live without”, the emotions go overboard. But this song isn’t all love and schmaltz; there are doubt and hesitation as well. When Olson follows with “I’m in love but I sure picked a bad time/To be in love…”, it’s almost as if he is unsure of what he should do next: go with the girl or stay.

“Bad Time” and other single “Blue” are two examples of songs that could have and should have been far bigger hits than they were. In a time when the industry was obsessed with finding more and more Nirvanas or Oasis-es, blame radio programmers for dropping the ball on most alt-country outfits in the ‘90s.

With 20/20 hindsight, in addition to “finding” elements of Robyn Hitchcock and linkages to a not-yet-existing Canadian band, looking over the song titles and lyrics, it seems pretty laid out that one relationship was coming to an end (Olson and Louris’) as another was beginning (Olson and Williams’). Not quite a Yoko Ono situation, it may be safer to assume that the more commercially pop-oriented direction of the band’s material might not have been Olson’s cup of tea, as he left to form a more folksy outfit with Williams, and the sound The Jayhawks took on after Olson’s departure shifted away from the band’s earlier output toward more pop/rock.

The Jayhawks’ now-considered-classic album, Tomorrow the Green Grass, features a band indebted to certain influences while not necessarily being utterly defined by those influences. On all the band’s previous efforts, the musical linkage to artists like Gram Parsons, The Byrds, and other early country rock bands is more than obvious. With their fourth album, that’s still true; however, the songwriting team of Mark Olson and Gary Louris, rather than relying on the past, simply use the past as stopgaps as they come to terms with their own sound. The two began fully developing characteristics within their songwriting. Their verses became just as catchy as their choruses, while their slow intros into up-tempo songs felt as if two separate songs were juxtaposed. Unfortunately, as they defined who they were, who they were ceased to exist, as Mark Olson left The Jayhawks after this album.

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