The Jayhawks’ Long, Sweet Song

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When the Jayhawks came along in the late 1980s, playing twangy rock with a sweetly folky side, they weren’t exactly in step with styles: As singer-guitarist Gary Louris points out, “We were swimming upriver, playing country music in the grunge era.”

But time has treated the Jayhawks well, and the albums from their rich early heyday–particularly Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, which have just been reissued by Sony Legacy–now have the ring of classics.

When those albums came out, “It was a bit of a detriment not being attached to any particular trend or sound,” Louris says, “but now I guess slow and steady wins the race. We age well because we were not of a particular time or place. That’s why our music still sounds good.”

Louris, who is unabashedly proud of the Jayhawks’ work, praises the albums’ production quality, which he describes as “solid and thick and vibrant,” and the band members’ performances, which they honed meticulously.

“They’re really tight records,” he says. “Reallytight.”

Each album also tells a piece of the Jayhawks story and signals a key turn in the band’s development. 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall was the group’s major-label debut after they jumped from Minneapolis’ Twin/Tone Records to Rick Rubin’s American imprint, and it has a guitar-heavy Crazy-Horse-meets-the-Flying-Burrito-Brothers vibe. 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass marked the end of Louris’ original partnership with vocal foil Mark Olson, as Olson left the band soon after–and that album, ironically, features the duo’s best singing yet, particularly on the album-opening “Blue,” their most memorable song.

If you suggest to Louris that “Blue” and the other best-known tunes from the reissues–such as “Waiting for the Sun” and “I’d Run Away”–are approaching the status of classics, he’ll quickly correct you.

“They’re not approaching it; I think they are, personally,” he says. “I’m cocky at this point, because I listen to them and they sound great.

“There’s just no denying ‘Blue.’ I can dance around it all I want, but if it’s not the best song we ever did, it’s pretty darn close. There are different songs that are better for different reasons, but as far as a straightforward classic pop song, start to finish, simple–it’s the best.”

The reissues come with extra tracks from the Jayhawks vaults that are bound to appeal to fans: Each album has five bonus songs, and Tomorrow the Green Grass has an entire second CD with 18 tracks billed as “The Mystery Demos.” Louris says he and Olson are incredibly prolific songwriters, and that there are many more songs where those came from–namely, boxes of tapes in his basement.

All this reissue activity might seem like the work of a band in retirement, but it’s not so. The Jayhawks have reformed with Olson back in the fold, and a new album is coming–one that Louris says is their best ever. Of course.

Image © Steven Cohen, courtesy of Sony Legacy.

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