Mark Olson’s singularly mournful voice—markedly unchanged from The Jayhawks’ first widely distributed release Blue Earth in 1989 to last year’s solo masterwork The Salvation Blues (Hacktone)—has always suggested someone far older in spirit than in age. But in forming that cult-legend band that jump-started the still burgeoning roots-rock/No Depression/Americana movement, Olson evinced this quality in his mindset as much as his singing.
“When I started out there was a lot of loud music going on,” Olson recalls, perhaps with Twin Cities contemporaries like Husker Du and the Replacements coming to mind. “I wanted to play music I could do for the rest of my life.”
Sure enough, two decades later, Olson at 46 is an elder statesman of the genre he helped to spawn. And, characteristically, dressed in tan corduroys and white, button-down shit with sleeves neatly rolled to the elbows, fairly hunched over his acoustic, he conjures a previous generation altogether. Always, Olson’s lyrics have exuded a wise-beyond-his-years awareness of life’s inherent pain as well as its simple joys, but one gets the impression that on The Salvation Blues, his first official solo album, life and art may have fully converged.
Written mainly while traveling in Europe in the wake of his divorce from fellow singer-songwriter Victoria Williams after a dozen years of marriage, the songs on Salvation strongly exude the feeling of the tentative first steps into the future after a period of longing and despair. “It does have a feeling of a place and time,” Olson says of the album, though most of his songs are triggered by specific experiences.
“Something happens and I make a note of it and dwell on it,” he says.
Case in point with the magnificent “Clifton Bridge,” named for the world’s first suspension bridge in Bristol, England. Olson distilled a sign with instructions to passers by who see someone jumping into the line “Some people come here to die, we came here to live.”
“There are a lot of things going on [in the world] that lead to a depressing outlook,” Olson says. “You can choose that path or say ‘I want to go down a path that looks like this.’”
Polished without detriment to the depth of feeling, Salvation—produced by roots-pop stalwart Ben Vaughn—“was the most organized thing I’ve done in a long time,” Olson says.
After making the acclaimed Jayhawks albums Hollywood Town Hall (1992) and Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995) under “very strong-armed” producer George Drakoulias, Olson left the band at its artistic and commercial peak. Until the new release, he would only be heard from on the pleasant yet unfocused and spottily distributed releases of the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, a loose collective comprising Olson, Williams and others whose output he calls “basically field recordings.”
Now, not only has Olson returned to form on par with his Jayhawks work with Salvation, but this fall will see the release of a collaboration with his formerly estranged co-writer/vocalist in the band, Gary Louris.
“I know this sounds crazy, but after 9-11 everyone called everybody,” Olson says, and his call to Louris resulted in the two reconciling, playing an acoustic duo mini-tour in 2005, and writing together again. “Poor Michael’s Boat” from Salvation was written with Louris and features his harmonies.
The two recorded the forthcoming album—also to be released on Hacktone—with producer and Black Crowes vocalist Chris Robinson. Half the record features only Olson and Louris while the other half includes a backing band and has “very much the same feeling” as the Jayhawks, Olson says.
Yet the release will not carry the name of the duo’s storied former band, which Louris too abandoned this year in issuing his album Vagabonds under his own name. Are the Jayhawks—at least nominally—a thing of the past?
“I’d be fine using the name,” Olson says. “I think there might be some business things involved in that.”
The name on the marquee notwithstanding, the duo plans to play European dates this summer and fall then hit the road here at the beginning of 2009.
In the meantime, Olson’s tour in support of Salvation continues through May. Italian violin player Michele Gazich and Norwegian vocalist/percussionist/pianist Ingunn Ringbold fill out the sound behind Olson in accomplished fashion. Gazich’s flair complements the relatively staid Olson, and his virtuosity on his instrument is evident throughout the set, especially with his pizzicato picking ably approximating a mandolin on several numbers. Ringbold’s duets with Olson on the Creekdippers tunes “Then We Were So Young” and “Still We Have a Friend in You” provide highlights as well.
“I’m very excited about my group,” Olson says. “We’ve worked up something really neat.”
The Jayhawks classics Olson incorporates into the set—“Over My Shoulder,” “Pray for Me,” “Sister Cry,” and “Martin’s Song” among them—are highlights, too, and get plenty of recognition from the crowd, but the immediacy and emotion is in the new songs. Perhaps unpredictably, his career is at a new high point.
When Mark Olson stood on Clifton Bridge and asked “Which way will it be, up or down?” clearly he chose the path back to greatness, and his listeners are very fortunate to be sharing it.
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