Jayhawks co-leaders in disharmony again

As his old band, now led by Gary Louris, carries on again without him, former Jayhawks co-frontman Mark Olson talks about the issues that led to their rupture.

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Gary Louris and Mark Olson, founders of the Jayhawks, when they reunited in 2009 around the duo album, "Ready for the Flood," a prelude to 2011's Jayhawks album "Mockingbird Time."

Photo: JEFF WHEELER, Star Tribune

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When Minnesota’s best-known songwriting duo first split up in 1995, the story goes that they hugged it out and went their separate ways. The second time, however, was an all-out mess.

“In front of a bunch of people, Gary said, ‘Why don’t you hit me?’ ” Mark Olson recalled of the last time he saw his Jayhawks bandmate, Gary Louris, following a 2012 festival gig in Spain.

The Jayhawks had spent the previous year and a half touring with Olson at the center microphone onstage, singing harmoniously with Louris, but offstage they traveled separately and eventually suffered a final confrontation at tour’s end.

Two years later — as the Jayhawks carry on without Olson — the original founder of the critically lauded twang-rock band is still stewing over what went down between him and his former partner. Widely credited for sparking the late-’90s alt-country boom and influencing everyone from Wilco and Bon Iver to the Dixie Chicks, the pair’s warm sing-along songs such as “Blue” and “Waiting for the Sun” remain local radio staples 20 years later.

Olson’s beefs include rather typical band arguments over money and songwriting credits as well as Louris’ publicly acknowledged substance-abuse problems — he completed a recovery program at the end of 2012.

Louris declined to comment on specifics for this article. For Jayhawks fans, the clear news is this: The co-leaders of the band that Rolling Stone heralded as “Minnesotan to the bone” will almost certainly never perform or record together again.

“I don’t ever want to see Gary Louris again, nor do I want him singing my songs,” said Olson, who claims that Louris promised not to tour as the Jayhawks without him, a pre-condition to their 2011-2012 reunion.

Just as he did in 1995, though, Louris is leading the band on tour again without Olson. The shows — including a European trek in July and an upcoming two-night First Avenue stand Sept. 5-6 — are timed to reissues of the group’s three Louris-led 1997-2003 albums.

“I have the utmost respect for Mark Olson,” is all Louris said in a statement to the Star Tribune. “We have shared many great years together as a duo and with the Jayhawks, and I look back fondly on the legacy we have left behind.”

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“A dream team sundered,” is how esteemed Rolling Stone writer David Fricke described it after Olson first quit the Jayhawks, “stranding his group in what-might-have-been land.”

The Jayhawks toured hard in 1995 but actually ended up in debt off their widely acclaimed second album for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label, “Tomorrow the Green Grass.” Disappointed, Olson essentially opted to start a new life. He married fellow singer/songwriter Victoria Williams that year (they divorced in 2006) and moved to Joshua Tree, Calif. (where he still resides).

“I had just bought my first house and just gotten married — two huge things,” he recalled in a 2009 interview. He and Williams would later tour and record together as the Original Harmony Creek Dippers, but he would refuse requests for Jayhawks tunes at their shows.

Olson finally sang his Jayhawks songs again in 2005, when he and Louris reunited without the group for an acoustic tour. They did so again in 2009 after issuing the folky duo album “Ready for the Flood.” It looked like the old bandmates had formed a new bond after a decade apart.

Louris said in 2009, “What we do now sounds a whole lot like the Jayhawks I knew [early on], when it was just Mark and I writing songs and recording demos on acoustic guitars.”

Olson now says things started to go south when the Jayhawks re-entered the picture in 2010, leading up to their 2011 reunion album “Mockingbird Time” and subsequent tour.

He said he made it clear to Louris he had no intention of putting the old band back together and getting “into a situation where things are out of my control again.” The Jayhawks name is owned by Olson, Louris and co-founding bassist Marc Perlman. Two of them can outvote the third on business matters.

Perlman, who carried on the band with Louris after Olson quit, declined to comment for this article.

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