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.
Another reason Olson said he resisted the idea of making a new Jayhawks record: He had his own album to promote, “Many Colored Kite,” issued by Rykodisc in July 2010. But that’s when his future wife, a Norwegian woman named Ingunn Ringvold — who also performed with him — ran into visa issues.
Ringvold was stopped at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and sent back to Norway by immigration officials who said she illegally entered the country to work as an entertainer. Facing about $20,000 in legal fees and unable to perform with Ringvold in the United States for more than two years, Olson said he felt forced into making the Jayhawks record and touring behind it for the money.
He became further embittered during work on the record, claiming he did “95 percent” of the songwriting on “Mockingbird Time.” At that time Louris was addicted to painkillers, as he has publicly acknowledged. Olson also contends the band overspent greatly on tour expenses, such as a bus, “trying to live like rock stars.” Olson says he refused to travel on the bus and drove by himself from gig to gig on the 2011-12 tours.
He wished he had called it off sooner, he said, but “there had been the investment and there were a lot of other people involved. The forward motion had started, and it was hard to stop once it got started.
“Because of my relationship with [Louris] for many years as a songwriting partner, I trusted him and went along with everything.”
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Talking from his house in Joshua Tree this winter, Olson still sounded deeply rattled over his former band and songwriting partner but content to move on with his music career.
Ringvold’s visa issues have been cleared. Now married, the couple split their time between California and Norway, where Olson has been studying the language. They played some stateside shows last fall and did several in Europe, where Olson has enjoyed greater success as a solo artist. He has a new album in the can, “Goodbye Lizelle,” which will arrive Sept. 26 via the German label Glitterhouse.
Olson’s manager, Michael Nieves, said, “Mark is moving on, but he’s still very upset. He’s especially unhappy Gary is once again out there doing Jayhawks shows without him, which he told Mark and me personally he would never do again.”
Olson doesn’t deny that the 2011-2012 Jayhawks reunion tour helped raise his profile again. He still regrets doing it, though.
“[We] started getting our life back together” once the tour ended in 2012, he said. “That’s when I had time to reflect. That’s when I started to call on my family [in Minnesota] and said, ‘You guys aren’t going to believe this … ”
Louris, too, has moved on. He and the revamped Jayhawks are playing only a handful of the songs Olson co-wrote on tour. They returned from Europe in time to play HazelFest Aug. 2 at Minnesota’s famed Hazelden treatment facility, an event that celebrates addiction recovery.
“A lot of things kind of hit the wall” from 2010 to 2012, Louris said in a video interview to promote HazelFest. “I was so self-centered. Everything was about me. I couldn’t function. I think I probably had a mental breakdown.”
Olson applauded Louris’ recovery efforts but said, “The precepts [of rehab] are you go about making amends, and nothing like that has occurred.”
Staff writer Brandon Stahl contributed to this report.