Musicheads Essential Artist: The Jayhawks

The Jayhawks
Gary Louris hangs out before performing live in The Current studio with the Jayhawks in 2014. (MPR / Nate Ryan)
Musicheads Essential Artist: The Jayhawks
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April is Minnesota Music Month. To celebrate, each weekday this month we'll be spotlighting a different artist with special coverage on air and online. For Wednesday, April 15, we're shining a light on the Jayhawks.

The Jayhawks, long-running Minneapolis mainstays, helped define the sound of alt-country music and have inspired countless listeners with their tight harmonies and heart-rending songs.

The Jayhawks first formed in 1985 when the singer-songwriters Gary Louris and Mark Olson joined forces. They immediately stood out from other acts of the era because they drew from classic country and folk traditions while also being steeped in the punk rock of their Minneapolis peers.

The combination of these influences helped them to carve out a brand new sound that would soon be labeled alt-country, and they would migrate from playing the Uptown Bar to become regulars at the 400 Bar on the West Bank, where their unique style of roots-rock music found a receptive audience.

As legend has it, the president of the watershed local label Twin/Tone Records was on the phone with an A&R rep for Rick Rubin's label American Recordings when the rep heard the Jayhawks' 1991 album Blue Earth playing in the background. The Jayhawks were signed to American later that year, and their early '90s albums Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass found listeners far outside the Twin Cities, with the single "Blue" becoming a sleeper hit and even charting in the top 40 in Canada.

Mark Olson left the group for the first time in 1995, and Gary Louris carried the band forward with a run of well-received albums in the late '90s and early 2000s, backed by the band's founding bassist Marc Perlman, keyboard player Karen Grotberg, and drummer Tim O'Reagan — a configuration that's endured for decades.

As the years wore on, the band began to write more and more collaboratively, including during a brief reunion period in the 2010s when Mark Olson re-joined the group. In recent years, the Jayhawks are stronger than ever, writing and recording prolifically, collaborating with legends like Ray Davies of the Kinks, and performing cathartic, career-spanning live sets.

The Jayhawks are that rare band who have continued to reinvent themselves and forge ahead while also being aware of their legacy as a genre-defining band.

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