During the then-nascent grunge era, when Rick Rubin made The Jayhawks his first signing at Def American, the Minneapolis group led by Gary Louris and Mark Olson was doggedly out of step with the times. But in time, the world has caught up to The Jayhawks, whose gorgeous amalgam of country, roots, folk, gospel, honky-tonk, and a half-dozen other genres represents a sound that millions have come to embrace. Though it’s hard to single out any act that invented Americana, The Jayhawks were doing just about everything that this now ubiquitous term denotes years before the genre name was part of our musical shorthand.
The yearning harmonies of Louris and Olson conjured the sound of a rustic, ache-filled past, but the hard-touring, success-averse nature of the band embodied the less tangible spirit of the fabled “old weird America.” The songs were etched into a weathered canvas, populated by characters who could have been from a different century. The sting of Louris’ guitar kept things firmly tied to the gritty present. One Rolling Stone writer likened the band’s sound on the landmark 1992 LP, Hollywood Town Hall, to “how Tom Petty might have turned out if he had come up playing country music in Minnesota rather than rock in Florida.”
The 1995 follow-up, Tomorrow the Green Grass, went even further, putting The Jayhawks at the forefront of the alt-country scene and drawing comparisons to country-rock royalty like Gram Parsons. An even more refined balance of heartache and hope, the LP contained the swoon-worthy “Blue”—a modest hit that seemed to poise the band for unlocking a wider international audience.
Instead, co-leader Olson abruptly announced his departure. Louris could have called it a day and moved to Nashville to write songs, which he eventually did. But for a time, he and the ’Hawks hung on, if not too tightly. Like any band that lasts thirty years, the sound of the band has evolved. Beginning with 2001’s Smile, the reconvened group has deemphasized the high-lonesome feel and reveled in something closer to pure pop, as well as bringing in some psych and other influences that earlier incarnations eschewed. That pattern continues on July’s Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, marked by the band’s signature sound and longtime delight in eclecticism.
The Jayhawks’ appearance at Hopscotch is a rare treat for those who have revered the band from the beginning. For those who weren’t there the first time, it might just be a revelation.