To mark its 30th birthday, we look back at The Jayhawks' seminal 1992 album
On the face of it, The Jayhawks were outliers in 90s Minneapolis and St Paul. While contemporaries Soul Asylum, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü were born out of breakneck punk rock, Gary Louris and Mark Olson’s band were alt-country before there was even a name for it. And even once there was, The Jayhawks’ songs were too bright and melodic to really fit in. Country and folk would eventually call to all or most of their peers, but The Jayhawks were disciples from the start, Olson and Louris trading harmonies like a Gen X CSNY.
Word was spreading about the group (which also included Ken Callahan on drums and Marc Perlman on bass) after the well-received Blue Earth, released on the city’s revered Twin/Tone label. It was during a call to the label that producer and American Recordings A&R exec George Drakoulias overheard the album and signed the band. With Drakoulias behind the desk, the band headed into the studio to record what would become their breakthrough.
Drakoulias brought a fullness and lushness to the band’s melodic country rock, as well as some Grade A connections, including drummer Charlie Drayton (Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday) and keys players Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) and Charlie Drayton (The Kinks).
Hollywood Town Hall doesn’t kick your door in or slap you upside your head. It’s more like the musician who sets up quietly in the corner of the bar and launches into something so special that it only takes a moment for everyone to shut up and listen.
Here, that something special is ‘Waiting For The Sun’, a song that would be on every jukebox and AM rock compilation the world over if it had been written by Neil Young or Tom Petty. Organ and honky tonk keys intertwine over muted guitar before Louris’s keening voice sings out from the darkness, like it’s calling out from a bygone era. Drakoulias produces it like you’re sitting in the centre of the band’s circle, ushered in and welcomed.
Ten years later, plenty of bands would be attempting the swaying lap steel, train whistle harmonica and twangy guitars of a song like ‘Two Angels’, the kind of thing that nobody had done this well since Gram Parsons, but in 1992, The Jayhawks were out on their own. It’s this dedication to their own path that makes Hollywood Town Hall so perfect. It’s so against the grain of its time, a million miles from the dark sludge of grunge or slick R&B-flecked pop.
One of the elements that makes The Jayhawks so special is their homespun harmonies, less the note-perfect interplay of the Beach Boys, more companions on the road, singing to pass the miles. It’s a sound that comes only from years of brotherhood. Listen to Louris and Olson match each other on ‘Sister Cry’ and then dovetail. At times, you’d swear it’s the Rolling Stones at their twangiest, especially when Olson’s nasal voice rises above the band: “And we don’t talk at ALL”. It’s more than a nod to Jagger, but it’s so perfect that it works.
Another not-so-secret weapon is Gary Louris’s guitar-playing. His Gibson SG is mostly coated in fuzz on Hollywood Town Hall, an incongruous interloper among the woodsy instrumentation. Sometimes it lingers in the background, like on ‘Crowded In The Wings’, other times, it burns the barn down, like that magnificent solo that closes ‘Waiting For The Sun’.
Thematically, the record taps into the band’s status as permanent road dogs. Each song is on its way to somewhere else, from the evil land of ‘Wichita’ to the promised land in ‘Nevada, California’. In almost every case, the protagonists are escaping, hoping for something better than the last town or thinking of someone already gone. It’s a restless record, but one with a yearning for home.
In the years that followed, bands like Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo (later splitting into Wilco and Son Volt) and Drive-By Truckers would widen the alt-country highway and give it an identity. What’s special about Hollywood Town Hall is that over the 30 years since its creation, what started out as a template has remained the gold standard.