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Roots Bound : 10 Years in the Making, the Jayhawks Strive to Blend Influences Into a Pure and Passionate Package

October 21, 1995|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Jayhawks have been around for a decade now, which nearly constitutes a milestone in the what-have-you-done-for-me-today world of pop music.

Still, chances are you're not familiar with the group. The country-folk-tinged material, consciously pretty vocal harmonies and gentle, heartfelt song craft the band purveys seem intrinsically at odds with the tougher-than-thou posturing of the big players in virtually every genre of contemporary pop. Consequently, the Jayhawks, who perform Monday at the Coach House, have a public profile that could gently be called less than ubiquitous.

When the Jayhawks formed in 1985, it was at the tail end of the last major roots movement in pop. Such groups as the Blasters, Green on Red, Rank & File, Jason & the Scorchers and the Del Fuegos had made retro-nodding hip but began disappearing at a rate that was eerie, even by rock 'n' roll standards.

The Jayhawks, along with a very few others such as the BoDeans and the Smithereens, are late-bloomers and lonely survivors from that era--anachronistic but honest, outdated but endearingly so.

"We're different in the sense that we're our own band, and we just do what we do," said Jayhawks' singer-songwriter-guitarist Mark Olson, 34, in a recent phone interview from a Seattle motel room.

"I'm happy that there's other bands out there that people compare us to and put us in relation to; I don't mind the comparisons," Olson said. "I was really into groups like Green on Red back in those days. But people think of us as latecomers, I guess because we came from Minneapolis and spent a lot of time just gigging around there.

"It was a step-by-step thing for us. First we just wanted to make sure we had a gig on a Friday night; then we wanted to make sure we had a record, and so on. We really didn't have a business plan. It took us a few years to hone on a sound that was unique to us; it took us awhile to figure out how we were going to all play together."

Citing Bob Dylan, Buffy Saint-Marie, Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers as early influences, Olson strives to achieve the same level of purity in his music as did his mentors. He's also resolute not to be pigeonholed. He's particularly intrigued by the Louvins' inherent strangeness and tendency to stray from the prevailing simplicity of country music in their time.

"When I listened to them, I went 'God, these guys are like the country Beatles or something,' with really poppy chords and ways of using them," he said. "It seemed like a wide-open thing, and that's what I love about the Louvin Brothers."

The Jayhawks' muse features a folkie's vibe of communal propriety, a philosophic search for emotional honesty, a hillbilly's instinct for the Divine Twang and a pop songster's search for the golden hook. Such descriptions, however, would likely leave Olson scratching his head--his take on songwriting is less complex.

"The thing that always attracted me to music was, you try to write poetry and heartbreak and all these things into your lyrics; you try to sing pretty, those kind of things," said Olson, who is joined in the Jayhawks by singer-guitarist and songwriting partner Gary Louris, bassist Marc Perlman, singer/keyboardist Karen Grotberg and new drummer/vocalist Tim O'Reagan.

"When you hear a really good song--it could be a country song, a folk song, a rock song or whatever--it seems to have a passion, something more," he said. "That's what we try to do, and, shoot, I don't know if we accomplish it or not, but it's the thing that keeps me going."

The Jayhawks have become less derivative over the years, and with the addition of Grotberg to the lineup for 1994's "Tomorrow the Green Grass," the group's most recent album, the sound has grown fuller and more layered.

"I knew Karen from this area in Minneapolis called the West Bank, where there's all these blues bars and country bars," Olson said. "I knew her for years and would go down to see her play in a country band on her regular gig.

"When we started looking for a keyboard player, Marc said, 'Ask Karen! Ask Karen!' and I thought that was a great idea. From the first song she played, she really fit in--boom! Her playing and singing adds a lot to the band."

The group has spent most of 1995 touring in support of "Green Grass," and Olson and Louris have been writing material for a new album to be released in the spring. From the way Olson describes it, the Jayhawks will be digging even deeper into their roots for the next effort.

"We're going to start off doing what we wanted to do for a long time, which is record some acoustic stuff and then take it from there," he said. "We'll have acoustic sessions and electric sessions. I think the sound will be different; it's not going to be as produced."

Somewhere, the Louvin Brothers are smiling.

* The Jayhawks and Blue Mountain perform Monday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Blue Mountain opens. 8 p.m. $15. (714) 496-8930.

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