The Hudson Guide to the Jayhawks

One of the more shocking musical stories of this year can be found in the liner notes to Taking the Long Way, the chart-topping new album by the Dixie Chicks. One expects to find names such as Sheryl Crow, Mike Campbell, and Bonnie Raitt on a disc as commercial as this. But how in the world did former Jayhawks leader Gary Louris end up on this album?
Louris not only contributes acoustic and electric guitars, but also “co-wrote” four of the album’s fourteen tracks. (To add to the surprise, former Trip Shakespeare/Semisonic leader Dan Wilson contributed six additional songs.)
In some respects, Louris’ input should not be so surprising. It was well documented that the Dixie Chicks were looking to bridge the gap between rock and country, a format that had worked so well for The Jayhawks over the course of their twenty-year career. Yet despite critical acclaim and a devoted fan base that has stuck with the band through problems with labels and personnel, this underappreciated Minneapolis band never quite hit the big time.
Louris disbanded the band last year, but is busier than ever. Along with his work with the ‘Chicks, Louris can be found on recent releases by Old 97’s leader Rhett Miller, singer/songwriter Tim Easton, and up-and-coming Minneapolis alt-country act Limbeck. July 18 saw a new release by Golden Smog, the “supergroup” that also features members of Wilco and Soul Asylum. If that wasn’t enough, Louris is also currently on the road in a surprise reunion with former Jayhawks co-leader Mark Olson.
With all this in mind, Prime felt it was a good time to take a look back at the back catalog of the band that, along with Uncle Tupelo, almost single-handedly created the “alt-country” genre.

The Jayhawks (aka “the Bunkhouse album”) (1986)

Let’s put it this way – if you own this piece of vinyl, don’t break the seal, as it’s worth at least a couple hundred bucks. An early version of the Jayhawks lucked into a gig opening for Alex Chilton, and stockbroker Charlie Pine was so impressed he became their manager and benefactor. He funded this recording, whose pressing was limited to either a few hundred or a couple thousand (depending on who tells the story), and the album was primarily sold at legendary Minneapolis record store Oarfolkjokepus.
Never released on CD (although it turns up now and then on Lost Highway’s release schedule), a fan-mastered version turns up on quite a few bootleg lists. Although the album certainly sets the stage for the Gram Parson-influenced magic they would release over the next few years, the small recording budget limits its appeal to non-fans.
Grade: B-

Blue Earth (1989)

When Bunkhouse failed to capture the attention of major labels, the band continued to record demos (50 or so tracks have come to light in recent years). The cream of these recordings almost led to a deal with A&M, but when they declined Twin Tone offered to release a remixed version. Olson’s mournful tenor was quickly maturing, as were Louris’ perfect harmonies and Neil Young-ish guitar work. Still, the limited recording budget hampers the overall impact of the album.
Grade: B

Hollywood Town Hall (1992)

Finally, the band received their big break. Renowned producer George Drakoulias reportedly heard Blue Earth while on hold with a Twin Tone record exec, and immediately signed the band to Rick Rubin’s Def American label. Drakhoulias headed the production on their major-label debut, which furthered the Parsons influence but added a slightly rougher Crazy Horse-ish roots-rock edge.
While the production certainly was an improvement on previous recordings, it’s the songs that stand out on this influential album. Quite frankly, there’s not a bad song to be found on this album. “Waiting For the Sun”, “Take Me With You”, “Two Angels”, “Sister Cry” – most bands would die for a couple of songs as great as these. HTH has six more that are equally great.
Grade: A+

Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)

Despite tons of favorable press, HTH fell just short of going gold. This follow-up stuck to much of the same formula as the previous album, but the songs were more pop-oriented. Yet ten years later, Tomorrow has aged extremely well, particularly on tracks such as the minor hit “Blue”, “Two Hearts”, and the epic finale “Ten Little Kids”.
Grade: A

Sound of Lies (1997)

Disaster struck just as the band seemed destined for…uh, greener pastures. Mark Olson left the band to record and tour with wife Victoria Williams. Louris decided to keep the band going, but it was obviously a completely different band without Olson’s songs and their trademark Olson/Louris harmonies.
Yet Sound of Lies is better to be expected. Louris turned the band into a more rock-oriented group, and new drummer Tim O’Reagan’s backing vocals meshed quite well with Louris. But the overall vibe of the album suggested that it was an extremely tough album to make.
Grade: B

Smile (2000)

Louris almost completely rid the band of influences of Gram and Neil on this unabashedly power pop album whose title “just happens” to share the name with the infamous abandoned Beach Boys epic. Only “What Led Me To This Town” could conceivably fit on Hollywood Town Hall or Tomorrow the Green Grass. Conversely, tracks such as “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and the title track could easily share space on a Raspberries or Tom Petty album.
Grade: A-

Live From the Women’s Club, Vol. 1 (2002) and Vol. 2 (2004)

The Jayhawks found their post-Smile years waiting to see exactly which label would end up with their contract (Def American was shuffled between three different conglomerates before ending up on Universal). During this downtime, the band toured as heavily as ever, and sold this acoustic recording (augmented with Smile demos) at their shows. Although not the classic live album this band deserves, the acoustic format is highlighted by the growing comfort level of Louris and O’Reagan’s vocals.

Rainy Day Music (2003)

Although they obviously had no idea that this would be their swan song, Rainy Day Music is the culmination of their entire career. The pop-oriented style of their more recent albums was seemingly effortlessly blended into the country-ish sound of their original lineup. Hampered only by its extreme length (a song or two could have easily been discarded), Louris’ superb songwriting on this album probably set the stage for his “surprise” hiring by the Dixie Chicks.
Grade: A


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