Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Jayhawks and Me

Reunited Jayhawks Marc Perlman, Karen Grotberg, Mark Olson, Gary Louris and Tim O'Reagan
Last night a friend and I went to hear Gary Louris "and friends" play in St. Cloud at the Paramount Theater. It turned out to be a Jayhawks minus Mark Olson show. The friends were Karen Grotberg, Tim O'Reagen, Marc Perlman, all members of the Jayhawks since the late 1980s,and Jim Boquist, who played with Louris in the band Golden Smog and also plays with Son Volt. I'm thinking since the Jayhawks with Mark Olson are putting out a new album in the fall, they didn't want to bill under that name and give people the expectation that they'd be playing early music by that band. However, they did focus on the three albums made by the Jayhawks after Olson left, Sound of Lies, Smile and Rainy Day Music. Perlman, O'Reagan and Louris were at the heart of these three albums, and Grotberg played on many tracks even after she left the band in 1999.

Before the show, I had a drink at the White Horse Bar with my friend Nancy, who loves music and plays music in a folk band (there seems to be nothing she can't play, but flute and mandolin are her strengths), and who has six children ages 5-16. Although the night was billed as an "accoustic set," I told her to expect lots of amplification and maybe even a few electric instruments. Indeed, Louris played an accoustic guitar and Grotberg a grand piano, but the lead guitarist and bass were electric. I then began telling her how the Jayhawks fit into music history and my own.

You see, it all began with Gram Parsons. He brought country to the Rolling Stones and the Byrds. Then he died and they set his body on fire in Joshua Tree, California. He was discovered by some guys, The Jayhawks, who began this sort of movement in the 1980s in the Midwest called Americana, Alt Country or No Depression. The Jayhawks went as far as they could nationally, but by the time they hit it big, they were in massive debt to the record companies for the promotion and touring costs necessary to get them where they got, and thoroughly disillusioned with it all.

And Mark Olson met Victoria Williams, a hippie Christian singer/songwriter from Joshua Tree, California, who was hitting her own stride but keeping it small because she had been diagnosed with MS. Mark left the band and made music with her in Joshua Tree under the name "The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers," eventually whittled down to "The Creekdippers."

My heart is with Mark Olson and the Creekdippers. When I got together with my first husband, George, I was a big Victoria Williams fan, and he introduced me to The Jayhawks. It seemed a culmination of our own relationship when the two of them got together. We went to small, late-night shows in Chicago to see them and played their music all the time. George bought a boxed set of The Byrds and started "encoding it in [his] DNA," to get deeper into the heart of this kind of music. He bought the Anthology of American Folk Music assembled by Harry Smith, an eclectic set of 78 tunes also at the heart of this music. We went to hear Lucinda Williams live, and worshipped Gillian Welch's first record, Revival. I was partial to Freakwater and the female vocalists, and of course we filled in our collection with Uncle Tupelo records. They had already broken up, so we went to an early show by Son Volt (really too darn loud) and listened to Wilco. We went to see the Bottle Rockets. One Tuesday eventing we even got to see Bob Dylan in a small venue.

Listening to and talking about this music was a large part of my life then. And at the heart of it really was The Jayhawks. I didn't much like the three albums after Olson left, preferring the truer folk and missing the complexity and harmonies of their earlier work. Louris had a love of 70s rock and roll and a little too much earnestness in his long line of songs about love gone sour. It didn't surprise me last night when he said "Trouble" was one of his favorite songs.

Still, I knew all the words to all those songs. I no longer own the CDs-- I lost them in the divorce. These older, still talented, comfortable musicians making solid music (the tickets were an astonishing $8) moved me. It's been a few weeks of nostalgia, beginning with my 25th college reunion, and this concert was heartwrenching in the places it took me. It was an effect only music can have. That, and the sight of four people on the stage (plus Jim Boquist!), all in their 50s I'm thinking, who have lived in and out of loves, had children, made music with many different people of many different varieties, and come back together now and then.

The last time I saw George was at a Gillian Welch show in Los Angeles. It was a small venue. I was there with friends, and he was there with the woman he left me for-- a woman who, with her husband, had accompanied us to a Wilco show and a Bottle Rockets show. (There's another story of seeing the Creekdippers at The Brown Derby in LA that is too long to tell but really emphasizes how this betrayal go mixed up in the music.) Out of the corner of my eye I could see his new girlfriend working it, facing away from the stage, her arms around his neck as she sang they lyrics to him along with Welch. I didn't feel anything except how pathetic and sad it all was. Shortly after I left California for Minnesota, I learned that Mark Olson and Victoria Williams had broken up, too, and he was wandering around Europe. Eventually he made his way back to Minnesota, too, and now there will be a new album from those early Jayhawks. I'm looking forward mostly to the harmonies.

Last night there were moments of heartache. But also, as there had been all day, as I worked in my lovely garden, bringing in 1000 more pounds of dirt and compost for the final beds (in the end I have the equivalent of 15 raised beds), there was a sense that I have arrived at the place I started out for a long time ago. It is a place of simple living and gardens, of good food and love-- and music. And this music, which I so love, like so much of what I love, is here, still going on.

For an earlier post on Louris and Olson, click here.


Narrah said...

Thank you for the touching post, and sharing a bittersweet part of the past.

james f sullivan said...