Over the Fourth of July weekend at the Dakota, Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal performed several tunes from Cash’s forthcoming “The List” (in stores Oct. 6), which Rosanne says she fashioned from a list of 100 essential country songs that her father, Johnny, gave to her when she was a teenager. As she delivered tune after tune culled from America’s enduring underground catalog the other night — including her first-ever live reading of “Long Black Veil” — I was heartened to know that in these times of uber-disposable American culture there are living, breathing preservation societies like Cash-Leventhal.
And the Jayhawks.
Yes, I’ve spent the last few days swimming in the cool seaweed-strewn lake waters of “Music From the North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology” (Sony Legacy), which cements the ‘hawks legacy as ghost-cousins to the likes of the Band, Uncle Tupelo, the Flying Burrito Brothers, even Poco. The harmonies of Gary Louris and Mark Olson seem predestined to waft out over a beer-soaked Midwestern summer’s eve as they will at Friday’s Basilica Block Party, and if nostalgia is for suckers, well, call me a small-mouth bass hooked on a feeling.
I first wrote about the ‘hawks for the long-dead Twin Cities Reader, when the hard-working bar band seemed to come out of nowhere after its self-titled self-released debut to create the elegant “Blue Earth” (Twin/Tone) in 1989. I spent hours listening to that record and hearing the band live at the Uptown Bar and other ports, reveling in the deep Minnesota musical roots it tapped. It was gritty and glossy and decidedly un-grunge, which loomed on the horizon and doomed many bands of the day that had hooks, heart and harmony. As P.D. Larson writes in his excellent “Anthology” liner notes:
“Along with Uncle Tupelo, fellow travelers 500 miles down the Mississippi River who in a few years would add punk rock to many of the same core Jayhawks influences, the Jayhawks soon became standard-bearers for an ‘alternative country’ movement (variously called things like ‘alt country, ‘Americana,’ ‘No Depression’ or ‘insurgent country’) as the ’90s and the Grunge Revolution began. This ‘new’ movement was essentially a hip, updated take on ‘country rock,’ using old, in some cases ancient, indigenous American sounds that had percolated through the rock world for decades.”
What’s more, the songs struck meaningful personal chords in adulthood. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve metaphorically had Gary Louris — a sneakily spiritual lyricist, who favors splashes of thoughts, feelings and gentle pastor-like advice versus linear storytelling — put his arm around me and sing, “Chin up, chin up, you don’t really have a problem/In your time of despair/Just smile when you’re down and out.”
Which evokes every religious tenet known to man, and if it’s positive thinking you’re after, I’ll take one listen to “Smile” over an entire cottage industry of “The Secret” any day. Speaking of which, there may not be a better fit of displacement or expression of the yin-yang of life’s rich fragile pageant than Olson singing, “This lifetime’s easy/way back home there’s a funeral” on “Two Angels.” (If you’ve ever been on the road, or “free” from friends and family, that single lyric can induce both wanderlust and a hankering for deep roots.)
I could go on quoting lyrics that pierce to the human experience, but on paper, without the harmonies, it’s taxidermy: The main thing “Music From the North Country” highlights is what a seasoned bunch of players and singers these guys are, and what a crime it is that they aren’t touring, recording, showing up on TMZ with Paris and Perez.
To that end, one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever witnessed was the ‘hawks’ Sept. 8, 2000, show at First Avenue. Mark Olson was off on his own in California, doing his own thing as artists are wont to, and the band was in full-on reinvention mode. I found myself in front of stage right with my friend Ali Lozoff. This is what I wrote in the Pioneer Press the next day:
“They played old friends like ‘Waiting for the Sun,’ ‘Settled Down Like Rain’ and ‘Blue,’ which felt almost tokenistic in light of such shimmering new lovers as ‘Smile,’ ‘What Led Me to This Town,’ ‘Broken Harpoon’ and ‘Somewhere in Ohio.’ Kraig Johnson and Gary Louris unfurled a jaw-dropping, head-banging guitar duel on ‘Sister Cry’ that suggested something unearthed from a Television/Only Ones time capsule, and all five ‘hawks — Louris, Johnson, Marc Perlman, Tim O’Reagan and secret weapon keyboardist Jennifer Gunderman — sang with the sort of wizened esprit de corps that only the best gospel choirs ever achieve.
“They laughed at their own mistakes, and at each other’s mistakes, and shot each other knowing, loving looks, the way siblings forgive and forget and forge on. In other words, they behaved entirely like a band, not something put together by Dr. Disneystein. They have reinvented themselves to the point where they are more No Wave than ‘No Depression,’ and if you haven’t seen them lately, you haven’t seen them.
“During a ridiculously utopian version of ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,’ the entire main floor seemed to levitate, and my date for the evening said it all when she leaned in with, ‘They’re the perfect band right now.’ That they were.”
Best. Road. Music. Ever.
Road trips were made for the Jayhawks. Many of the songs on “Anthology” have been companions to a couple generations of Minnesotans who slap on the ‘hawks for the drive up north to the cabin. One of my most vivid cassette-deck memories is of driving down to South By Southwest in the early ‘90s with my friend and fellow writer Terri Sutton, who was close to the band and recounted winsome tales of being up north on a beach, sitting around a campfire singing and drinking with Louris and pals.
As we pulled out of the Oklahoma City motel that morning and moved onto Austin, we had “Waiting for the Sun” steaming out of the tape deck, going 100 miles an hour. It felt like a Deadwood cartoon, and damned if we weren’t living out every American highway dream from Kerouac to Cash. The next day, the ‘hawks played a showcase set, I interviewed Louris and then-violinist Jessy Greene for No Depression, and for the next few days it seemed as if all of SXSW was buzzing about the Jayhawks. Sigh.
It’s often said that bands are like marriages, but the fact is, as they grow older, they become more like families. That’s one reason the Jayhawks are so beloved. Beyond the music business ups and downs, they’ve been through a lot together. Friends have died. Marriages have split up. Lovers and band mates have come and gone, wisdom has been gleaned, spurs have been earned, comebacks and setbacks have been replaced by living in the moment and the here and the now.
Now here they are, one more time, maybe the best time, with the sun going down over Mill City, on a big stage flanked by a grand basilica, singing about dirt roads and dirt naps and everything in between. Enjoy.
Basilica Block Party, Friday, July 10, through Sunday, July 12. (The Jayhawks will perform Friday from 8:45 p.m. to 10:15 p.m.) Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.com, 800-745-3000, or at The Local in Minneapolis. For more details, a list of bands and a performance schedule, go here.