It’s August 1994 and I’m waiting for Johnny Cash to go on stage at Detroit’s State Theater when the opening act’s high-flying harmonies catch my ear. The Jayhawks, one of the great bands of the alternative country movement of the nineties, are playing some of their 1992 album Hollywood Town Hall and some not-yet-released songs, mixing vocal-duo innocence with country-folk twang.
Then it’s July 1996 and I’m commuting from Ann Arbor to Detroit and listening to the Jayhawks’ newest album, Tomorrow the Green Grass. Mark Olson, the lead vocalist, is singing about a woman who got away: “Left running, you said you were flying/Left running, you said you were cold/Any statue you could name/Like the ones that I fell for.” Each line is elliptical, as if a word is off on purpose to slip free of literal meaning. But when Gary Louris, Olson’s songwriting partner, joins him on the soaring chorus—”Would you love me when you’re older?”—I hear the message: She’s gone.
“These songs . . . are mostly sung in harmony,” read the album’s liner notes, by musician and writer Tony Glover, “not that genetic Everly Brothers sound, rather the gene-spliced brotherhood of the highway.” But by then the Jayhawks brotherhood had split in two. Olson had left the band and moved to the Mojave Desert to cut homemade records with his wife, Victoria Williams. The rest of the Jayhawks carried on, with Louris taking lead vocals, but without those fraternal harmonies.
In time Olson and Louris collaborated again—a little songwriting, a couple of short tours. They played the Ark in 2005, mixing their Jayhawks collaborations with Olson’s solo work and songs from the band’s last, post-Olson album from 2003, Rainy Day Music.
Now Olson and Louris are touring again with a new album. Ready for the Flood was recorded two years ago and mostly written in summer 2006. Just months earlier, Olson and his wife had divorced. No surprise, then, that Ready for the Flood is quieter, humbler, sadder than a Jayhawks record. “You’ve gone and let someone turn your pretty name around,” Olson sings, distilling romantic disillusion and jealousy after betrayal.
This is the first time Olson and Louris have recorded as a duo, just two guys and two guitars facing each other. The album is hushed and intimate. They’re finding solace in each other’s company and measuring what’s changed. They’re trying new sounds: spooky guitar echoes on “When the Wind Comes Up,” and a wispy and wistful duet, “Saturday Morning on Sunday Street,” that sounds like a Simon and Garfunkel album track.
I think when Olson and Louris play the Ark on Tuesday, February 3, the contrasts and connections between their old and new songs will be more interesting than at most songwriters’ reunions. The Jayhawks classics, with their resilience and operatic sweep, will illuminate and uplift the new, quiet songs—just as old friendships can rekindle something we thought we’d lost.