Radio Kings: The Jayhawks

Your music fills my car
Your voice breaks every time
I’m still wonderin’
If I know who you are
I hang on every line

One day near the end of my time at the College of William and Mary, I tagged along with my friends Mark and Vicki to do some music shopping in Norfolk, VA. While they looked to flesh out their classical collections, I headed straight for Pop/Rock and flipped through the G section until I found the new album by a Minneapolis “supergroup” called Golden Smog. It was probably the only copy of Down by the Old Mainstream then in existence in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and I had to settle for a cassette tape. (Ah, the mid-1990s — was I ever so young?)

Jeff Tweedy and Gary Louris
Jeff Tweedy and Gary Louris, 2004 - Creative Commons (David Poe)

The album title came from the final track: “Radio King,” whose chorus is quoted above. The song was written and performed by two frontmen who were then still struggling to emerge from the shadow of more acclaimed partners: Gary Louris of The Jayhawks (whose chief collaborator, Mark Olson, had just quit the band) and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco (then less popular with critics than his former Uncle Tupelo mate, Jay Farrar of Son Volt).

To this day, Wilco and The Jayhawks remain my two favorite active bands, if not exactly the “radio kings” they deserve to be. As fortune would have it, the two bands are releasing albums within a week of each other: The Jayhawks’ Mockingbird Time comes out tomorrow; Wilco’s The Whole Love next Tuesday. So while I don’t intend to unleash my inner critic/fan on this blog too often, this kind of convergence just can’t be ignored.

Today I want to make the case to those who haven’t heard them that The Jayhawks have long been (as The Village Voice called them in 1989) “the only country-rock band that matters.” This time next week I’ll wax even more extravagant about Wilco. Then I’ll come back to close this three-part series with a reflection on being an evangelical Christian fan of these bands.

The Jayhawks

I’ve intentionally steered clear of listening to tracks off of Mockingbird Time, in part because I still love the anticipation of unwrapping an unheard CD, in part because the expectations surrounding not only the first Jayhawks album in eight years but the first with Mark Olson since 1995 are impossibly high (and early reviews have been mixed, to say the least).

But setting aside what this newest (re)incarnation of such a well-traveled band sounds like, here’s a ten song introductory course in Jayhawksiana, drawing from their 1990s and 2000s albums, plus a few solo and side projects.

“Waiting for the Sun” and “Martin’s Song” (Hollywood Town Hall, 1992)

The Jayhawks, Hollywood Town HallIt’s amazing to me that Hollywood Town Hall managed to break into the Billboard Top 200 in the middle of the grunge explosion. (It was engineered by Brendan O’Brien, who also worked on the Stone Temple Pilots’ Core and the next year produced Vs. for Pearl Jam.) At a time when Kurt Cobain was still sneering at roots music, HTH was the most literate, tuneful country-rock record to be released since Gram Parsons’ untimely death. There’s scarcely a weak track on here. It’s a joy to hear Gary Louris break through not just as a distinctive guitarist but an equal to Olson as a frontman and writer; “Waiting for the Sun” is one of the best leadoff tracks in rock history, from its first piano notes on. But Olson is in wonderful form as well, particularly on the two strongest songs from 1989’s Blue Earth, re-recorded here and better than ever. “Two Angels” could also make this list, but I’ll go with “Martin’s Song,” since it has the Platonic ideal of an Olson lyric, filled with barely-rhyming couplets and story fragments that seem equal parts inscrutable and wise (“He’s only six years old / That old killer died / Put him down in a great big hole / I fill it up all the time”; “Forty years of sudden death / The daylight’s still not over yet”).

“Blue” and “Miss Williams’ Guitar” (Tomorrow the Green Grass, 1995)

The Jayhawks, Tomorrow the Green GrassPart of me wishes the band had kept to their pattern of naming albums after small towns in Minnesota, but this is still my sentimental favorite of their catalog. Not that it’s as strong, song for song, as some others. (“Bad Time” might be the greatest Grand Funk Railroad cover ever, but it still feels like filler to me.) But it was the first Jayhawks album I bought; homesick on the East Coast, I was hooked by the first back cover note from Twin Cities folk legend Tony Glover: “These songs… mostly come from Minnesota, Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. The biggest and coldest is Superior, where they say the drowned dead never rise again, except in song.” If Hollywood Town Hall has one of my favorite opening tracks in history, TTGG has the best 1-2 punch of any Jayhawks album: the transcendent “Blue” (the greatest example of the Olson/Louris vocal partnership, described by Glover as “sung in harmony; not that genetic Everly Brothers sound, rather the gene-spliced brotherhood of the highway that happens when hauling ass to one night stands”) and Louris’ first (and perhaps best) attempt at pop perfection, the bittersweet “I’d Run Away.” But for the second song of TTGG, I’ll recommend “Miss Williams’ Guitar”; propelled by Louris’ searing guitar work, Olson’s lyric pays tribute to music itself (“Sounds like a field being painted / In the Delta sun / Songs from the book of life / For everyone”) and to the musician for whom he was about to leave the band.

“Big Star” (Sound of Lies, 1997)

The Jayhawks, Sound of LiesFew albums have grown as much on me as Sound of Lies. I don’t remember feeling like one of those diehards who thought that Louris had no right to keep using the Jayhawks name after Olson left. But I do remember playing Sound of Lies for the first time and finding it a huge disappointment. But I returned to it maybe three years after it first came out, and it stayed in my car’s CD player for a whole month. I always think of SOL as the soundtrack to a surrealistic movie that never got made, full of weird narratives and character sketches like “Think About It” (which opens with a mysterious death — “Colored pinwheels as the sirens whine down the avenue” — and ends as a world-weary county coroner “pulled his pad and scribbled ‘suicide'”). But the album’s centerpiece is more straightforward, simply the band’s best rock song: “Big Star.” (A highlight of my first year back in the Twin Cities was driving past the C.C. Bar in Minneapolis. I’m sure I would have observed “rude remarks” if I’d stopped, but at the time, my contract with Bethel wouldn’t have permitted me to enjoy the “Fine bourbon, Cuban cigars” of Louris’ description.)

“Until You Came Along” (Golden Smog, Weird Tales, 1998)

Golden Smog, Weird TalesAbout half the Smog consists of once or former Jayhawks (including bassist Marc Perlman and one-time second guitarist Kraig Johnson), and Gary Louris has consistently contributed the strongest songs to the collective, including the waitress ode “V” that kicks off Down by the Old Mainstream (co-written with Johnson), the lovely arpeggios of that album’s “Won’t Be Coming Home” (an early Jayhawks demo for which is included on the rarities disc with the 2009 Music from the North Country compilation), the title track of 2006’s Another Fine Day, and “Until You Came Along,” the most buoyant love song any Jayhawk ever recorded.

“Better Days” (Smile, 2000)

The Jayhawks, SmileThe Jayhawks’ naked grab for pop stardom, Smile is the last thing you’d recommend if someone gave you one album to sell them on the band. The title track is a fine opener (though it feels like a redo of the previous album’s more interesting “Haywire,” which gives virtually identical lyrical advice), “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” has a happy mandolin part and made me smile when I heard it pop up in the background of a Gilmore Girls episode (yay, corporate synergy!), and the closing “Baby, Baby, Baby” has an impassioned Louris vocal (we’ll probably talk about its final lyrics — “So beautiful, so beautiful / You’ll cry your eyes / Just like Jesus Christ” — in the third part of this mini-series). But “Better Days” is the only genuinely great song on here. Sure, including an allusion to “St. Augustine in prayer” may be pandering to bloggers who happen to teach church history surveys, but on an album full of artifice, Louris’ weary, confessional verses (“Now I stand in sympathy / Not for her, but for me”) and heartbreaking chorus (“Too late for hope / But a dream remembered / Better days”) perfectly match his world-weary performance.

“Stumbling Through the Dark” and “Tailspin” (Rainy Day Music, 2003)

The Jayhawks, Rainy Day MusicThe second half of RDM doesn’t quite measure up, but the five songs that open the last Jayhawks album (before the one released today) are impeccable, demonstrating that the vocal blend of Louris and drummer Tim O’Reagan could hold its own next to the Olson/Louris sound. “Stumbling Through the Dark” might be the best Byrds song that Roger McGuinn (or Tom Petty) never recorded (I like the electric twelve-string sound on the opening track, but the unplugged reprise that closes the album is quite pretty as well). And “Tailspin” not only exemplifies the great Louris lyrical trick of starting a song mid-story (“Well, I stood prepared as you took a chair / There was no need to satisfy you”) and showcases O’Reagan’s harmonies (particularly on the 2nd verse), but it includes one of my favorite musical moments on a Jayhawks recording: the way Louris’ soloing guitar gives way to a pedal steel part for four bars, then seamlessly rejoins the mix for the remainder of the soaring instrumental break.

Tim O’Reagan, “Black & Blue” (his self-titled solo album, 2006)

O'Reagan, Tim O'ReaganBoth Olson and Louris have released fine albums apart from the band (plus a collaboration that prefigured Olson’s reunion with the Jayhawks), but if I had to pick one track from a Jayhawk solo outing, it’s got to come from Tim O’Reagan’s out-of-nowhere-excellent album. While he takes lead vocals on three songs in the Jayhawks catalog, only “Tampa to Tulsa” on Rainy Day Music begins to approach the level of the other tracks listed here. But on his solo release, he proved himself a distinctive singer, multi-faceted musician, and subtle songwriter capable of a lyric as powerful (if sometimes hard to decipher) as “Black & Blue” (“There’s no more dyin’ sounds / Comin’ out of me”).

So tomorrow I’ll get to enjoy something I didn’t think I’d ever encounter again: new Jayhawks songs. And in one week, look for my ten song introduction to Wilco on the eve of their new album’s release.

Read the next post in this series>>

3 thoughts on “Radio Kings: The Jayhawks

  1. My 87 year old mother from International Falls just sent me the full album, probably illegally downloaded, this morning as she is quite excited that they will be on Letterman again on September 23rd. The Jayhawk keyboardist, Karen Grotberg Smith, is a Falls High School graduate of the class of 1977 and her parents apparently live on the next block to my mother. I like their Sound of Lies album and listen to it often on my iPod.

    1. Karen graduated with me and this is the first time I have listened to their music and love it. Very impressed and cannot wait to watch them on Letterman. Way to go Karen!

  2. One glaring omission, Chris: Sound of Lies’ “Stick in the Mud,” which has the most hopelessly patrician chorus ever (“You got me down on my knees / I’m begging you please don’t leave”) but is elevated to high heaven by Louris’s voice. Also, it may have the saddest two lines in any song I know: “Let me be nice to you / You’re still my best friend.” Oof. I listened to Sound of Lies at least fifty times when I was going through a bad breakup early in graduate school, and that record still makes me feel like I’m Cryin’ N’ Drivin’.

    Also, my wife is going to be angry that you don’t think “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is a perfect song. (I’m with you, for the record; I refuse to let a song with a line like “Your hair’s long and black” into the pantheon. But what a chorus!)

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