Revered for being one of the original alt country acts in the mid-’80s, The Jayhawks felt out of place even in the acoustic circles they shared with their fellow Minneapolis porch pickers. Instead of going the cow punk route or trying to establish themselves as Nashville outlaws, they looked to the past, to artists like The Louvin Brothers and Gram Parsons, for inspiration. Their work was unhurried and unconcerned with modernization—they mixed a potent brew of country, folk and heartland rock that spoke to the heartbroken and the overworked. And possessed of golden harmonies, immaculate songwriting chops and an utter lack of pretension, the band sought to explore and reintroduce the rustic sounds of decades past to a new generation of likely appreciators.
Marked by a resistance to trendy production and an adherence to their own bucolic roots, the band’s work felt timeless, a mixture of electric and acoustic country tendencies that fed into their fascination for the histories of various sounds. They weren’t afraid to embrace the rockier aspects of their influences, but they also weren’t averse to thinning things out a bit when they were in a more introspective mood. Looking back, their songs were insular in the best way, enclosed worlds where melody and the art of songwriting were seen as virtues and their existence not left to chance. The Jayhawks weren’t looking to reshape the world, even if their records did suggest otherwise.
The band was formed in Minneapolis in 1985 when Mark Olson, after doing a tour of duty on upright bass in a rockabilly band called Stagger Lee, decided to focus on his own musical voice. He invited Marc Perlman, a guitarist who’d performed with a local band called the Neglecters, to be his bassist and brought on drummer Norm Rogers shortly thereafter. As a trio, the group began booking shows, and on one such occasion, local music veteran Gary Louris was in attendance and struck up a conversation with Olson after the show. They soon found common musical ground, and by the end of the evening, Louris had been officially invited to join the band.
They kicked around various Twin Cities clubs for a bit, sharpening their focus and coming to an understanding of just what The Jayhawks could be. They released their self-titled debut in 1986, and although it was only pressed in a limited edition of a couple thousand copies, the album developed substantial acclaim and success. And though it looked promising that the band would sign a major label deal on the strength of their debut, that opportunity never happened for them. They continued to tour and attained a significant following, all the while writing new songs that highlighted their alt country prowess.
In October 1988, there was a shift in the band’s lineup, with Rogers exiting the band and Thad Spencer taking his place behind the drums. Around the same time, Louris was in a bad car accident, and the band decided to take a hiatus while he healed. So while the band was resting a bit, their music was still going strong. In 1989, the people behind Minneapolis independent label Twin/Tone released the demos that the band had been working on for the past few years as “Blue Earth.”
After the album’s release, Spencer left the group and was replaced by Ken Callahan. The newfound attention and critical success being lavished on the band brought Louris back to the group, and they hit the road for a national tour. Their next big break came in the form of A&R representative/producer George Drakoulias, who heard “Blue Earth” playing in the background on a call he had made to the Twin/Tone offices and signed the band to American Records. The band entered the studio and recorded what would form the basis of their next record, 1992’s “Hollywood Town Hall,” their greatest and most comprehensive work.
“Hollywood Town Hall” isn’t just a single-minded alt country record—it is a curious shape-shifter that maneuvers through a handful of sounds with an ease the band hadn’t shown before. Producing a handful of radio hits, including “Waiting for the Sun,” “Take Me With You (When You Go)” and “Settled Down Like Rain,” the album works through its American rock influences with a heart filled with country eccentricities and folk earnestness. The vocal harmonies between Olson and Louris were stronger and more confident than they’d ever been, leading the band across winding trails of acoustic melodies and curiously ragged electric guitar lines.
There is an obvious yearning to break free of tradition laced within these songs but also a need to connect with the past without invoking nostalgia. And with all the songs (except for “Wichita”) written exclusively by Louris and Olson, there is a sense of continuity in each song’s rambling history. The band was helping refine the Americana sound. And while you could trace those roots all the way back to the ’60s and beyond, The Jayhawks’ contribution was so immediate and prescient that their work with these sounds from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s really set the bar for modern alt country.
The record peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and No. 192 on the Billboard 200, a surprising feat for a record with such modest ambitions. A captivating experience from start to finish, “Hollywood Town Hall” is a casual and lovely record that speaks to creaky front porches, unrequited love and open fields, the kind of imagery and ideas usually reserved for old-school country artists. But it also holds tightly to its blue-collar rockiness, with sounds carried across an often-craggy, guitar-driven landscape. “Hollywood Town Hall” is many things to many people, and in its rhythmic expanse, it discovered the beating heart of America.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.