Singing the Salvation Blues

Mark Olson lost his house and his wife, but hey—he's got a great new album

Mark Olson
The Salvation Blues
Hacktone Records

Not to get all existentialist on you, dear reader, but when a man is stranded, alone in the world of love, it doesn't matter where he goes or what he does. It only matters that he goes somewhere; that he pursues something. For native Minnesotan songsmith Mark Olson, that somewhere was away from his broken home in Joshua Tree, California, preferably at the helm of a speeding vehicle with a siren on top.

"I was sitting there at my aunt's, moaning the blues about losing my wife, my touring career with Victoria," says Olson, sitting at Tracy's Saloon in Minneapolis. It's mid-June and Olson is in town to perform at the Fitzgerald Theater. He's taken a couple of hours to talk about his new album, The Salvation Blues, a work borne of his separation from fellow songwriter and wife, Victoria Williams. "I was just sitting there, just totally out-of-my-mind blue. I wasn't doing any music at all," Olson says. "I enrolled in Copper Mountain College to be an EMT, 'cause during this time that everything changed in my life, I decided that maybe that would be something that I'd really like to do. I liked the siren and the whole thing, the blood and the guts. It reminded me of touring."

Fortunately for Olson's myriad fans (and perhaps for those in need of emergency care in southern California), Olson's escape plan hit a snag. So, he came up with another one.

"I started [the program] and then they told me I had to take all these shots and that's what made me stop and think about it," says the salt-and-pepper-haired songwriter. "I went to Expedia.com and started looking for flights, and I thought, 'Of all the people I've met in Europe, who are the people I would most like to see?' and I thought of these two writers."

He fled to the home of music journalist Charlotte Greg and her novelist husband in Cardiff, Wales. Camped out in the room of the couple's son, Olson was at the onset of a two-year journey that would take him to pubs and recording studios from Wales to Norway to Poland. In the end, he would return to the United States to record The Salvation Blues, a collection of melancholy folk songs that manages to expose enough blood and guts to keep any EMT's hands full. Digging out those vital organs, though, proved painful.

A singular character in the alt-country world, Olson is the man who started the beloved Minneapolis band the Jayhawks in 1985. After quitting that band during its ascension to national renown in 1995, he put out numerous albums of left-field homespun folk with the Creek Dippers, a band that featured then-wife and folk chanteuse Williams and Michael "Razz" Russell.

But never before has Olson created an album like The Salvation Blues, a collection of songs bolstered by brilliant musicians (including contributions by his Jayhawks bandmate Gary Louris and Williams), but whose weight rests solely, and squarely, on his own shoulders.

"It took me 20 years," says Olson of going it alone. "I never, ever thought of myself as a person who could do it. But I had to. It was either that or get the shots."

Olson certainly had plenty of material to work with. After a decade of matrimony and musical partnership with Williams, he left the songwriter for another woman, only to be turned away by the latter. He lost his wife, his home in Joshua Tree, and a performance career that saw him, Williams, and Razz filling some of Europe's largest theaters. He had nothing to his name, and he was staying in a borrowed bedroom while his writer friends' son slept on the couch.

"Every morning at 7:00, they were up and ready to write," says Olson. "I was so ashamed of myself. We would stay up late at night listening to this old folk music. They were playing me the Watersons, Nic Jones, and Dick Gaughan. Incredible musicians that I had never heard of, and my mind was completely blown.... I started to play a little bit, and then after a week, I announced that 'I am going to write a record now.'"

The record that emerged after two years of traveling and attempting to mend his shattered spirit offers a striking glimpse of grief, marrying deep regret and vivid memories of Olson's life, stretching from the suicide of his father ("Keith") to the death of his relationship ("My One Book Philosophy," and just about every other song, be it a somber ballad or a lithe two-step).

Olson's vulnerability is on full display in most of these songs, but so is the songwriter's resilience, his trembling tenor betrayed by an obstinate sense of hope in his lyrics and his ability to deliver line after painful line while never breaking stride, even if it is the deliberate stride of a broken man. The Salvation Blues is, in short, Olson's finest, most fully realized work.

The first song, which Olson penned while waiting for a train to take him from Cardiff to Bath, is also the album's tender salvo, "My Carol." "I have come to fetch my Carol/I have wandered in the muck," he sings before ruminating on "Unforeseen victims of modern sin/Walk the dark rain/Then no more/Daylight brings the bells of joy/The bells of joy." The woman's name, sung in Olson's quavering voice, is an approximation of a heartwarming anecdote, but the subject of the song is clearly Williams. The song's aim, just as clearly, is salvation.

"Everything on the record, every single line, happened to me in my life," says Olson. "The first line was about when Vic and I moved to Joshua Tree and this wonderful guy from South Africa had read about us and he came to live with us for a year. Then one day his girlfriend comes from South Africa, and she comes up to me and says, 'I've come to fetch Carl.' I thought that was the most beautiful expression of love I've ever heard. She came to fetch him, to take him home."

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