The first line of the first single off the new album by Mark Olson and Gary Louris begins mid-sentence, as if picking up partway through a story we should already know. "And then came disappointment," Olson and Louris sing in unison on "Turn Your Pretty Name Around," immediately pulling the listener back into the world they created for themselves 20 years before, when they started writing songs together in their pioneering alt-country band, the Jayhawks.
Like two old friends picking up a long-abandoned conversation, Olson and Louris singing together again feels remarkably natural and congruent. Though both halves of the duo agree that it wasn't always an easy friendship—in the late '90s they went five years without speaking to each other—they have made amends with the past and rejoined forces to create a beautiful and striking album, Ready for the Flood. If the rate at which tickets for their two shows this weekend sold out is any indication, Minneapolis is teeming with Jayhawks fans who are grateful that the duo have set aside their differences and returned to the recording studio and the stage.
Though neither Olson nor Louris permanently resides in Minnesota these days (Olson lives near Joshua Tree, California, while Louris splits his time between Minneapolis and Spain), they are both deeply rooted in the Minneapolis music scene. "We first met in the early '80s in Minneapolis," Louris says, speaking over the phone from his home in Spain. "We were both kicking around the scene, and I met him, and I was pretty taken by his enthusiasm and his songs. So we eventually started playing together in the Jayhawks."
The band quickly made a name for itself in the Twin Cities, playing country- and roots-based music in an era dominated by harder-hitting acts such as the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. The Jayhawks released a new album every two to three years, with each release getting picked up by a bigger label. They began on the small independent Bunkhouse Records in 1986 (The Jayhawks), then moved to Twin Tone (Blue Earth), and eventually signed with American Records, then called Def American, in 1992. Their Def American debut, Hollywood Town Hall, helped the band firmly establish itself on the national scene, and soon after, the 'Hawks were vigorously touring the U.S. and Europe
Through the years, the backing members of the band changed frequently—they were already on their third drummer by the time they recorded Hollywood Town Hall—but Olson and Louris stayed at the center of the group, their songwriting becoming more and more collaborative. Hollywood Town Hall and 1995's Tomorrow the Green Grass showcased some of the duo's best work; at a recent in-studio performance at 89.3 the Current, Louris called their song "Blue" off Tomorrow "one of the high points" of their songwriting career. "We just couldn't do any better than that," he said.
After Tomorrow was released, however, things started to shift within the group. Olson moved to California to marry singer-songwriter Victoria Williams and eventually decided to leave the band altogether to focus on his new marriage. "He really fell in love," says Louris. "He moved away, and he lived in Joshua Tree, and that, I think, was a bit of the beginning of the end. Because then we weren't in the same town, we couldn't just go over to the practice space with the band anymore. We were separated more. When he got pulled in that direction and decided he really wanted to make music with his wife, really devote himself to his marriage, he left the band."
"Initially I told him we wouldn't carry on with the band, at least under that name," Louris continues. "After further discussion with the label and further discussion with the rest of the band members, and the reality of the music business, we decided to carry on without him. And I think that caused a rift. Nobody wants to feel like they're replaceable. I think Mark took it very personally, and we really didn't speak for a number of years."
Neither Olson nor Louris blames the other for their split. "It's to my discredit that I didn't stay in better contact," says Olson. "I take responsibility for not picking up the phone more often."
After five years of silence, a music supervisor called up Louris and asked if he would consider penning an Olson/Louris song for a movie soundtrack. "That was the impetus to get us together, and we talked out all our little issues and big issues and reconnected as friends, and put the past behind us," Louris says. "We realized how much we missed each other musically and as friends, and needed each other in a way."
"Gary's always been a person in my life where good things have happened when I play music with [him]," adds Olson.
The song they wrote when they reunited, "Say You'll Be Mine," never ended up in the movie (though Olson used it on his 2002 album December's Child), but it got the ball rolling on more Olson/Louris collaborations. The duo did an acoustic tour along the East and West coasts, and decided that if they wanted to keep touring they had better come up with some fresh material. In 2006, they met at Louris's part-time home in Minneapolis and hunkered down for a concentrated, five-day songwriting session, piecing together most of the songs on Ready for the Flood from start to finish. Louris calls it "one of the most intensive songwriting periods I've ever had with anyone."
"You don't do that all the time," says Olson. "We cleared our schedules and focused on the writing."
Their attentiveness to songwriting craft is obvious on the new album. Unlike the old Jayhawks songs, which often featured Louris on electric guitar and a full backing band, the songs on Flood are stripped-down, tightly woven, and tinged with elements of bluegrass and folk. In other words, the sparse musical arrangements are the perfect backdrop for homing in on the delicate dance of Olson and Louris's vocal harmonies. It's been written a thousand times that great musical collaborations create a sum that is greater than their individual parts, and that is especially true for Olson and Louris. The way their voices slide seamlessly between unison and harmony can run a chill up the back of one's spine; at their recent Current in-studio, audience members looked at each other in disbelief and rubbed goosebumps off their arms as the duo played.
"Our voices join, and it becomes this third person," says Louris. "We don't have vocal rehearsals. We don't chart out harmonies. I just sing and he sings, and I go where he isn't."
Saturday and Sunday's shows at the Varsity are only the beginning of a resurgence of the original Jayhawks. Louris says he's assembling several goodies for 'Hawks fans. "[Sony is] redoing all our records, re-releasing all our records, and then there's gonna be a 'Best Of' Jayhawks record that I'm trying to put together, and a box set—like a Jayhawks 'Best Of,' and then a rarities, B-sides disc, and then a DVD with film footage. We found a fair amount of film footage through Rick Fuller in Minneapolis, who has some film of us from 1986 and 1991, '92. A lot of old stuff."
Both Olson and Louris say there is also a good chance they will reunite the entire Jayhawks lineup, including keyboardist Karen Grotberg, to play a show in Minneapolis. "Her daughter is a little older; it's a little easier for her to do these things," says Louris. "I think Karen was a very, very important part of that band. Is and was. Just having her there kind of verifies everything for me. And Mark, he's interested."
"I'm sure that it will happen," agrees Olson. "I'm open to that. I don't see why not."
MARK OLSON AND GARY LOURIS play on SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 21, and SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 22, at the VARSITY THEATER; 612.604.0222