jayhawks hollywood town hallI once heard The Jayhawks described as the “greatest Lutheran bar band ever,” and though I’m still not exactly sure what that means, I know I like it. It’s certainly better than the “alt-country pioneers” label they normally get saddled with. Or worse, heirs of Gram Parsons’ “cosmic American music” legacy. (Which is not a knock on Gram in any way, just on the flaky non-genre he coined). My own description would be: jangly God-haunted Midwestern country-folk with fuzz guitars and harmonies that essentially define the phrase “sandpaper-and-honey.” But even that doesn’t cover the oddly circular progression they’ve undergone, from breezy singer-songwriters to arty and somewhat angsty recordmakers, and back again. Regardless of how they’re categorized, The Jayhawks are an American treasure, responsible for at least four brilliant albums, two of which feature co-founder/-lead singer Mark Olson (Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass), two of which don’t (Sound of Lies and Rainy Day Music are exclusively Gary Louris-led affairs). The fact that they’ve got a connection to Lutheranism is just a bonus.

2011 was a big year for Jayhawks fans, as Olson and Louris reformed the band, went out on tour, and even put out new record called–get this!–Mockingbird Time. Plus, they gave us exquisite reissues of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass, the latter of which contains an embarrassing wealth of unreleased material. Highly recommended.

Mark-Olson-The-Salvation-Blu-465253Anyway, back to the “Lutheran” part. Mark Olson’s faith has always informed the fractured poetry of his songs – an image here, a phrase there – never obscured by fear or paraded with insecurity. I’m thinking of the uncontrived religious undertones of “Waiting for the Sun” or “Real Light,” how they cleverly changed the title of “Martin Luther” to “Martin’s Song,” or how they covered Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head” on an early b-side. So when Olson wrote and recorded a straight-ahead gospel tune on his solo record December’s Child (!), “Still We Have A Friend In You,” it may not have been a big shock, but it was certainly a pleasant surprise (he had almost gone there with the excellent “Someone There To Talk With” on his previous album). It helps that it’s such a great song, too – totally authentic, uplifting and singable, with not even a whiff of cheapness. In other words, it’s top-tier white gospel (which is not meant as a backhanded compliment) and a bit of a modern classic. Olson explained himself in the press release for the record with characteristic humility and understatement: “That’s a gospel song in the sense of when you’re younger, you go away from God. It talks about what it takes to get you back into the walk with God. A lot of times you don’t go back until you’re just down.” Turns out it was a dry run for his next record, arguably his best, the divorce-themed The Salvation Blues. Garrison Keillor, eat your heart out:


Remember our boat sails
We won’t be there to recognize
At a tender age we was left behind
Still we have a friend in you

And keep your sweet eyes
There on the ones you love
The darkest things will cross our minds off of
Still we have a friend in you

011661865020There’s many things we lost
Back in our forgetting you
Our ways that cost so much
Broken clocks that just won’t move
Still we have a friend in you

Our hearts are the street gypsys
Living in some cardboard trust
Our pocket change is all used up
Still We have a friend in you

There’s many things we lost
Back in our forgetting you
Our ways that cost so much
Broken clocks that just won’t move
Still we have a friend in you

Remember the sweet sway
And stillness of your evening hands
We need a gentle touch when our time ends
Still we have a friend in you

 

As a bonus, here’s the wonderful aforementioned cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head”: