There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
To enthusiasts, The Jayhawks are among the great alt-country bands of the 1990s, but the group seems to have been doubly screwed by history: It never earned the indie-hero status of others great acts from its hometown of Minneapolis, like Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, and it never matched the bordering-on-mainstream success of genre peers like Wilco and Ryan Adams. But way before Jeff Tweedy was penning Grammy-winning albums and alt-country was the favored sound of the NPR set, The Jayhawks were proving—along with bands like Old 97’s and Tweedy’s Uncle Tupelo—that you didn’t have to wear a cowboy hat, live in Nashville, and sound like Garth Brooks to be country.
The Jayhawks may have been seven years into their career when they released their major label album, 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall, but the album still sounds wise beyond their years. This maturity is partially due to singer-guitarists Gary Louris and Mark Olson, who had developed as co-songwriters over the course of two earlier independent albums, and can be partly credited to producer George Drakoulias (The Black Crowes, Primal Scream), who steered the band with a deft hand. It’s an album outside of time, as ancient-sounding—which is to say fresh—on this expanded edition as it ever was.
The songs feel crafted for casual barroom gigs and front-porch jam sessions. Opener “Waiting for the Sun” brings together a rootsy riff and a charming dash of honky-tonk piano, while “Two Angels” starts with the keening strains of a harmonica before building into a sad-eyed ballad that finds poignancy in graceful slide guitar licks. With hints of Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and the ghost of Gram Parsons, Hollywood Town Hall is an artful reclamation of traditional country music. This edition includes five bonus tracks, which are worthy additions to the band’s official catalog, especially “Up Above My Head,” a clap-fueled call-and-response duet between Louris and Olson.
The band’s next album, 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, is of a richer, poppier stripe. Beginning with the swooning, string-laden “Blue” and carrying through the joyfully raucous closer, “Ten Little Kids,” it contains one well-crafted song after the next. The sincere, bouncing “I’d Run Away” sits nicely next to the ebullient, country-fried rock of “Miss Williams’ Guitar” and the longing folk lament “Over My Shoulder.”
It was supposed to be the album that made The Jayhawks famous, but that didn’t happen. Whether or not they should have been, The Jayhawks weren’t destined to be the next Counting Crows. Olson ended up leaving the band, leaving Louris to carry on at the helm. Though they released several excellent albums in the wake of Olson’s departure—especially 2000’s glistening Smile—the Jayhawks never topped Tomorrow the Green Grass. It’s one of the best alt-country records ever made, even though the band had no idea that’s what it was making. Olson and Louris probably would have just called it honest and heartfelt, and there’s no arguing with that.