Is a very very very fine house,
With two cats in the yard.
Life used to be so hard.
Now everything is easy 'cause of you.
THESE FAMOUS LYRICS, now ingrained in the psyche of those in tune with American pop culture circa 1970, were Graham Nash's public love letter written to an equally famous musician, Joni Mitchell. While by no means profound, the sentiment is consistent with a mental portrait of what most true-blue residents of this consumer-driven country hold up as a standard of familial happiness and contentment. It is Robert Indiana's "Love" series of pop art paintings set to music; a snapshot on the set of Leave It to Beaver. Lacking any sort of subtlety, it describes a simple, uncluttered life sustained by an innocent naiveté and underscored by the dreamy, pristine harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Moreover, it became a cliché, a television commercial. Is that a bad thing? Or is it simply the encapsulation of a common ideal that stands above the cheap trivialization of corporate advertising?
Now, three decades hence, we find one Mark Olson, singer, songwriter and progenitor of a style of music commonly referred to as "alt-country" or "Americana." Today, Olson finds himself living a life fueled by the ideas conveyed in Nash's lyric, if not his (and North America's) blanket conception of the good life.
Oh, by the way, did I mention that Olson's in love? He has been for quite a while--just a minor detail to strengthen and complete the parallel. But I'll finish that story later.
During a period of roughly 10 years (approximately 1985-95), Olson passed his time hummin' and strummin' in a band recognized by rock critics and a religiously devoted fan following for its limitless virtues: The Jayhawks. While by no means original, those virtues included rock-solid songcraft, jangly guitar leads punctuated with a bit of twang, and, most notably, a penchant for achingly sweet two-part vocal harmonies.
Formed in February 1985 somewhere within the Minneapolis club circuit, The Jayhawks came together when future co-ringleader Gary Louris witnessed the inaugural performance of Olson's theretofore untested foursome. Louris was a native Ohioan who had studied piano as a child; Olson had spent his early years in Minneapolis (and eventually California) taking cues from locals such as gifted songwriter Paul Westerberg and his band of beer-drenched punk descendants, The Replacements. Louris and Olson would serve as The Jayhawks' fulcrum until amicably parting ways in 1995, when The Jayhawks continued on with Louris as bandleader.
During a fan-based Internet interview, Olson recounted their union: "I came from a folky background, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. Then a friend turned me on to the Flying Burrito Brothers, and when I started playing and harmonizing with Gary, something worked right away ... to me, our music has a soulful feeling, put together with traditional melodies and I think there will always be people out there who like that."
From its eponymous debut album, only a few thousand copies of which were pressed (and still fewer were heard), until its eventual signing with (Def) American, the band experienced severe growing pains. Personnel changes and Louris' involvement in a near-fatal auto accident forced a brief hiatus.
Then, according to rock folklore, during a phone conversation between producer George Drakoulias and a representative of Twin/Tone (the Minneapolis indie that released The Jayhawks' debut full-length recording, The Blue Earth), Drakoulias overheard The Blue Earth playing in the background, and the rest is history.
Hollywood Town Hall (1992) and Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995) were released to universal critical praise, yet commercial success still eluded the band. It was on these records that the brilliant, heartbreaking harmonizing chemistry of Louris and Olson was at its finest. "Take Me With You (When You Go)" from the former CD and "Blue" from the latter screamed to be heard by more than the relatively few who did. Olson's bright tenor complemented Louris' slightly deeper tone like chocolate sauce on strawberries; sublime and instantly satisfying.
Along with Uncle Tupelo, the band's Heartland neighbors to the south, The Jayhawks saw its work become an integral piece of the burgeoning underground "No Depression" movement's puzzle. But low sales, concurrent with discontent between Louris and Olson resulting from the constraint of the musical format, led to Olson's departure. Olson also desired more time with his wife, quirkily-talented Victoria Williams. On at least a few occasions, Williams accompanied the band (I recall an MTV appearance), singing backup vocals.
California was calling, and Olson surrendered to his urge to go west. He bought a plot of land in rural Joshua Tree, set up shop in his living room, and set to work on recording The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers (1997). Working without the constraints inherent in a major-label record deal, Olson and his loose configuration of modern-day bohemian wildflowers have forged a brisk pace of production recalling the days when an artist's expected output required a new rendering no less than once a year. Olson's Creekdipper collective is four for four (records and years, if you're scoring at home), self-releasing all but the current record, My Own Jo Ellen, released October 17 on HighTone Records. Meanwhile, Williams has since released two more solo titles, 1998's Musings of a Creekdipper (Atlantic) and the current Water to Drink (self-released).
Past contributors to the ever-revolving cast of Creekdippers include Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford and local hero John Convertino of Calexico. With each successive release, the Creekdipper sound evolves a bit, expanding its scope and integrating more instruments. The sound is more complex, but its delivery transmits just the opposite feel. Banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, accordion, clarinet, bongos, violin, dobro, vibes and jew's harp pepper the decidedly folk-based tunes, enhancing their already rustic, earthy qualities. Each player proves multi-instrumental talents, never missing a beat while framing Olson's seemingly simple songs.
Although the band is clearly Olson's project, Williams has been an integral player in its sound. Her harmony vocals recall Emmylou Harris backing Gram Parsons and his early 1970s band, the Fallen Angels. Borrowing from Giant Sand architect Howe Gelb, Williams' style is a "delicate crossing of Mickey Mouse and Michael Jackson without the weirdness."
My Own Jo Ellen is a very personal document of Olson's social and spiritual concerns. "Ben Johnson's Creek" laments the once pure ecosystem now contaminated by humankind's attempts at "progress"; "Meeting in Lone Pine" warns of the demise of our greatest resource, the farmer; "Walking Through Nevada" is a remembrance of cherished times with a special companion.
Olson talked about some of the record's remaining songs: "'Letter From Africa' came about because I have a friend in South Africa, another in Zambia and a relative in Kenya for 36 years who was an American priest. One side of the song is about friendship, the other a way of telling someone to keep their nose to the grindstone. The closing track, 'Rosalee,' is about the psyche and understanding. The title track is about my grandmother, who rented all her life and used to say she wished she'd bought a house in Mendocino when they were cheap. When we had a chance to buy in Joshua Tree, we did."
So without further ado, let's return to our love story. Mark Olson's dreams came true: He got the house ... er, shack; he got the cats ... well, bobcats; he got the yard ... er, desert; and of course, he got the love of his life ... his music, that is. (Just kidding.)
Howe Gelb opens for Mark Olson and Victoria Williams this Saturday, December 16 at Solar Culture, 31 E. Toole Ave. The cover is $8.