“Please don’t call it ‘alt-country!’,” pleads The Jayhawks’ archivist P.D. Larson in the liner notes to the new Legacy Edition of the band’s fourth album, 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass. But whatever you call it, the uniquely American music of the Jayhawks has endured, and is currently being celebrated by American Recordings and Sony/Legacy with two deluxe reissues produced by Larson and John Jackson. The band’s major label debut from 1992, Hollywood Town Hall, has been expanded with a clutch of promotional and foreign-issued singles (American/Legacy 88697 72731-2), while its follow-up Tomorrow receives the full two-CD Legacy Edition treatment (American/Legacy 88697 72732-2). Five B-sides and unreleased songs bolster Disc One while a full complement of eighteen previously-unreleased demos comprises Disc Two.
Producer George Drakoulias recalled first hearing the vocal blend of Mark Olson (also acoustic guitar and harmonica) and Gary Louris (also electric, acoustic and fuzz guitars) while on hold with a friend at Twin/Tone Records. Twin/Tone had released The Jayhawks’ Blue Earth in 1989, and once Drakoulias got a hold of it, he was determined to sign the band for its next release. A trip to Minneapolis found Drakoulias bonding with Gary Louris over Carol Hunter’s guitar parts on Neil Diamond’s most rock-oriented live album, 1971’s Gold, and then with Mark Olson over the records of Porter Wagoner and The Louvin Brothers. Soon, with the rest of the band brought in – Marc Perlman on bass and Ken Callahan on drums – Hollywood Town Hall was born. While The Jayhawks’ style was redolent of what Gram Parsons called “Cosmic American Music,” one could also hear a dash of Eagles here, a pinch of Roger McGuinn there. But the sound was far from simply derivative, and it was a breath of fresh air in a music business seeking to capitalize on the grunge craze.
Hollywood‘s leadoff track “Waiting for the Sun” established The Jayhawks’ melodic sound, a deft blend of guitars with piano (studio stalwarts Benmont Tench and Nicky Hopkins were among those brought in to contribute musically) and prominent harmonies. If not all of the album is overtly “country,” certain tracks such as “Two Angels” and “Clouds” certainly are in that rustic vein. But even the yearning “Take Me with You” is toughened by a strong rock guitar solo. Drakoulias’ clean, timeless production and the songs of Olson and Louris still sound fresh and vibrant today, and the bonus tracks show that The Jayhawks (not the most prolific band, but one that valued quality over quantity) had a wealth of material from which to choose. “Leave No Gold,” with a blistering guitar and feedback-laden attack, is a standout, but may not have fit with the prevailing mood of the album. The original ten songs on Hollywood Town Hall are largely of a similar character, tempo and sound, leading to a sameness that may be this stellar album’s only drawback. The band rectified that for its next long-player, Tomorrow the Green Grass.
The electric Tomorrow the Green Grass saw The Jayhawks returning to Hollywood‘s template, but expanding its musical palette and drawing on even more diverse inspirations. Karen Grotberg joined the band on piano, Wurlitzer and vocals, and Don Heffington replaced the departed Ken Callahan on drums. Among other guests, Benmont Tench returned on organ. It defies belief that first single “Blue” wasn’t a smash hit (nor was the album, peaking at No. 92 on the album chart) as this memorable track was more than radio-friendly. This, of course, says more about radio circa 1995 than it does about “Blue.” The song boasts subtle strings arranged by Paul Buckmaster and the textured harmonies of Louris and his partner Olson, who would depart the band after this album. (Louris soldiered on in The Jayhawks until disbanding the group in 2004; he and Olson reunited and reformed The Jayhawks in 2009.) “Miss Williams’ Guitar” is filled with unfettered joy, and is dedicated to Victoria Williams, who sings backing vocals on “Ten Little Kids” and “Pray for Me,” and would become Olson’s wife (they divorced in 2006). A surprising cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s “Bad Time” is a lively, worthy cut, and sounds as if it could have been an Olson/Louris original. “See Him on the Street” emphasizes the twangier side of the band, as does the thunderous “I’d Run Away” with its fiddle flourishes. If “Red’s Song” invites comparison to The Band’s “The Weight” after just its opening notes, that’s hardly a negative. Louris’ electric guitar solos lend a powerful edge to even the most laid-back compositions and smooth harmonies. The end result made Tomorrow the Green Grass not only The Jayhawks’ crowning moment but one of the landmark albums of the decade and also in the Americana genre. I won’t say “alt-country!”
If you’re a longtime fan of Tomorrow the Green Grass, the plentiful bonus tracks offer more than enough compelling reasons to grab the reissue. The title song never appeared on the album proper, having been relegated to B-side status on the European “Blue” single and also appearing on the soundtrack National Lampoon’s Senior Trip. Here, this infectious Beatlesesque tune (with cries of “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”) finds its most appropriate home. The never-before-released “You and I (Ba-Ba-Ba)” is described by Louris as “our Beach Boys Pet Sounds tribute,” but sounds more like a delicious outtake from Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, at least to these ears! Karen Grotberg takes the vocal spotlight on a delightful cover of Harlan Howard and Billy Walker’s “Last Cigarette” which appeared on the European single for “Bad Time.”
Disc Two’s The Mystery Demos won’t disappoint those who are nostalgic for the sound of Mark Olson and Gary Louris blending their voices in harmony. Whittled down from 46 tracks to a still-plentiful 18, The Mystery Demos reveals many familiar Jayhawks songs in pure, acoustic versions recorded over two sessions in 1992. The first, in February of that year, saw Louris and Olson joined by Mike “Razz” Russell on violin and mandolin. The second session was held eight months later in Los Angeles with George Drakoulias present but no additional musicians. Although these demos may be unadorned, they sound far from unfinished. It’s wonderful that these long-circulating tracks have finally received an official release, but their quality is so uniformly high that one wishes an entire two-disc set had been devoted to the release of all 46 tracks. (Of the 46 songs, 44 are unique titles; 33 of the 44 were never released by the Jayhawks during the band’s existence. Of that 33, 11 were eventually used in non-Jayhawks side projects such as Olson’s band Golden Smog, and 22 were never “recycled” for future use.) Another reason to wish The Mystery Demos had seen their own release? There are still non-album B-sides (such as the acoustic versions of “Blue,” “I’d Run Away” and “Bad Time,” just to name three) not collected here despite the wealth of bonus tracks.
Vic Anesini’s remastering on both Hollywood and Tomorrow sounds customarily good, if not dramatically different from the original releases on CD. Both feature booklets with lengthy essays; George Drakoulias provides his personal recollections about the making of Hollywood, while Bud Scoppa examines Tomorrow from a historical point of view and P.D. Larson sheds light on the no-longer-such-a-mystery Mystery Demos.
Taken individually, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass are still potent albums and poignant glimpses back at a less well-known side of the American music scene circa the 1990s. Taken together, they represent the stylistic growth of a hungry and ambitious band, steeped in musical tradition, making its mark. Much as The Jayhawks drew on their influences to create these two landmark LPs, young bands today are no doubt finding inspiration in the rootsy melodies of Mark Olson and Gary Louris.