The Jayhawks are usually talked about with the founders of the "alt-country" movement, which is really less a genre and more a state of mind – 1990s bands such as Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown and The Old 97's, all of whom combined the stark emotions and longing of country music with a bit of alternative rock feedback and grit. Call them whatever you want — the Jayhawks merit a second look.
Whereas Uncle Tupelo got a bit more of the lonesome ache and hard times of country music in their tunes, the Jayhawks inclined sharply towards the brighter side of life – crisp dueling harmonies and hum-able hooks dominate their tracks, which carry on the legacy of bands like the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Even when they're singing a sad, sad song like "Ain't No End," the intertwining harmonies of singers Gary Louris and Mark Olson are a thing of glittering beauty. In taking a page from golden oldies like The Statler Brothers or the Carter Family, the Jayhawks managed a sound that was nostalgic and fresh at the same time.
The Jayhawks' new Sony/Legacy greatest hits compilation Music From The North Country will offer novices exposure to a good dozen tunes that are near-classic gems. Fans of Ryan Adams or Wilco should check it out. But for longtime Jayhawks fans, you'll want the impressive three-disc deluxe edition, which tacks on 20 rarities in a second disc and a DVD of several music videos.
Hailing from Dylan's "North Country" of Minnesota, the Jayhawks formed in 1985 and picked from a wide variety of influences to chart their path in the crowded '80s and '90s music scene. Music from the North Country traces the ambitions of a band that never quite broke through to mainstream success, but were cult idols from the word go. Like Memphis' Big Star, who are name-checked in a song by the band here, the Jayhawks were either ahead of or behind their time a bit.
Their earlier work has a wide-eyed charm that flirts with greatness – the extraordinary "Waiting For The Sun", which mixes Fleetwod Mac's universal smooth pop with the crunch and jangle of The Band, has the chiming clarity of a hit single you've known all your life. The Jayhawks' peak came with the marvelous one-two punch of 1992 and 1995's Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass – packed with wistful and chiming singles like "Blue". "I'd Run Away" manages to pack into its 3-1/2 minutes a microcosm of world-weary, idealistic love gone wrong:
"So we had a little baby boy / But we knew it wouldn't last too long / Kind of what I had in mind / But what I had in mind was strong."
As the band moved along, Louris and Olson both took turns stepping aside and the band experimented more with pop. After Olson left for good, later tunes from the Jayhawks' slick 2000 album Smile nearly sound like Tom Petty homages. But by Rainy Day Music, their bittersweet 2003 farewell, the Jayhawks summon up a dusty prairie majesty with songs like "Save It For A Rainy Day" and "Tailspin," where those classic harmonies are back in full form.
The rare and unreleased tracks on Disc 2 show the evolution of the band's better known tracks – such as a fiery version of "Tailspin" that features a fuzzed-out grungy guitar lead. The crackly demo "I Think I've Had Enough" finds Louris channeling Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan with a graceful, harmonica-laced tune.
There are certain bands that don't quite "break through" until years pass – The Velvet Underground, Big Star, The Vaselines, Magazine and many others spring to mind – and the Jayhawks, fairly or not, are one that deserve a lot more attention. The excellent retrospective Music From The North Country gives them the second chance they deserve.