The Jayhawks were formed in February 1985, at Minneapolis, Minnesota. Mark Olson, standup bass player for the local rockabilly band, Stagger Lee, and sometime solo acoustic performer, invited former Neglecters guitarist Marc Perlman and drummer Norm Rogers to form a band. Soon after, Olson convinced Perlman to switch to bass. Olson, Perlman and Rogers were joined at their first gig by temporary guitarist Steve Retzler. Only a handful of people attended that gig, but most importantly, Gary Louris was among that handful. Louris had formerly played guitar in Schnauzer and the rockabilly band Safety Last. Olson was still looking for a permanant guitarist and asked Louris if he had any recommendations. Louris suggested himself
Gary Louris grew up in Toledo, Ohio and as a youngster took 7 years of piano lessons. When he was 14 he acquired a classical guitar because his mother suggested that he might be more popular if he could bring a guitar to parties. During college he started writing songs with a roommate and discovered he had a good singing voice. It wasn't until he had graduated from college in 1977 at age 22 that he purchased his first electric guitar, becoming a lead guitarist at age 25. In 1982, Louris replaced original Safety Last guitarist Tim Mauseth, and in 1983 they released the Twin Tone album, Struck By Love, which included a Louris song, "The One You Love."
Mark Olson grew up in Minneapolis and California. In a 1995 interview, Olson sited some of his early musical influences: "I was inspired by the local bands playing around Minneapolis, like the Replacements and I come from a folky background, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. Then a friend turned me on to the Flying Burrito Brothers, and when I started playing and harmonizing with Gary, something worked right away...to me, our music has a soulful feeling, put together with traditional melodies and I think there will always be people out there who like that."
Later in 1985, the Jayhawks opened for Alex Chilton at a Minneapolis club. In attendance was stockbroker Charlie Pine, who was struck by the band's straight forward country rock and heartfelt lyrics. Pine became their manager and formed a record label, Bunkhouse Records, with the band. Using Pine's money they recorded their debut album, The Jayhawks (usually referred to as "the Bunkhouse album") which was released in 1986 to attract major label attention. During this period the Jayhawks held down day jobs and continued to play gigs at night.
No major label offers followed and Norm Rogers left and eventually joined the Minneapolis band, the Cows. He was replaced by Thad Spencer on drums. During this time, A&M Records had given the Jayhawks money to record some demos, but the label passed. In October of 1988, Gary Louris was injured in a car accident and left the band. The Jayhawks took time off. Louris pursued a career as an architect and bassist Marc Perlman worked for a publishing company (which in 1993 published two books he had written about movies).
Despite these setbacks, Charlie Pine continued to shop the A&M demos around to local record labels, and Dave Ayers of Twin Tone offered to release the demos that had accumulated over the last couple of years. Gary Louris came in to overdub a few of his old guitar parts and decided to rejoin the band soon after. After the demos had been re-mixed and a few more songs added they were released in 1989 as Blue Earth. The album garnered critical raves. The Village Voice dubbed them "the only country-rock band that matters." The Jayhawks decided to go full time and hit the road in a refitted ambulance dubbed "Bula" (which came from blocking out some of the letters in "ambulance").
Disatisfied with Twin Tones' ability to promote them, the Jayhawks still hoped for a major deal. Their break came when Twin Tones' Ayers was on the phone with George Drakoulias, a record producer and A&R rep for Def American (later American). The story goes that Blue Earth was playing in the background and he was immediately interested. The Jayhawks were signed to Def American in 1991. By this time Thad Spencer had left to pursue other projects and Ken Callahan had replaced him on drums. Produced by George Drakoulias and released in September 1992, Hollywood Town Hall was greeted with critical praise and radio airplay. When the Jayhawks launched their 1992 tour, they had added keyboardist Karen Grotberg to the lineup. Mark Olson had spotted her playing with a Minneapolis country band, The Ranchtones, at a West Bank bar and invited her to join.
The Jayhawks toured throughout 1993, and in the spring of 1994 they went back into the studio with George Drakoulias producing. The result was Tomorrow The Green Grass which was released in February 1995. The single "Blue" featured beautiful soaring vocals from Louris and Olson, and the album had a more rocking pop sound than previous albums. Drummer Tim O' Reagan was a new addition to the band in 1995. Tim, a Leavenworth, Kansas native, had played in soul bands in Kansas City; recorded an album, Topeka Oratorio, with fellow Kansas native, Todd Newman (as The Leatherwoods); and had played with Joe Henry and Martin Zellar.
Then in late 1995, Mark Olson announced he was leaving the Jayhawks to spend more time with his wife, singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. Olson would later form the country folk band The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers with Williams and Mike "Razz" Russell. In an interview Gary Louris recounted some of the reasons for the split: "Twelve years is a long time together and to share a band. We both wrote a lot of songs. But in the long run we'd end up putting five songs each on a record. And every two years, that just wasn't enough to satisfy Mark or myself and one of us was going to go...it was just a matter of time." It was also increasingly hard for the Jayhawks to continue as a singer-songwriter country rock band. When they had begun in 1985, there were few bands labeled as "No Depression", "Alternative Country", etc. They felt as though they had explored that type of music as far as they wanted to and their latest album had pointed the direction in which they would now go.
After taking a short time to reassess what they wanted to do, the remaining members got back together in early 1996. They were joined in the studio by guitarist Kraig Johnson and violinist Jessy Greene. Johnson is a member of the Minneapolis band Run Westy Run and also Golden Smog, the Minneapolis supergroup (with a wink), whose members include Gary Louris, Marc Perlman, Dan Murphy (Soul Asylum), Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Jody Stephens (Big Star) and in the past, Chris Mars (the Replacements) and Noah Levy (the Honeydogs). Greene, a classically trained violinist, formerly played violin in the Geraldine Fibbers. Together with Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, Johnson and Greene also perform as O'Jeez.
Without the expectations of working as a country rock band , the Jayhawks were freed to explore each member's many musical influences and ideas. Sound Of Lies was released in April 1997. Gary Louris stated when it was released: "I just like the moody weird stuff. That has real memories for me. That's the thing about this record, it's just more emotional and personal, more of the moment. I'm very proud of it." When they played the new songs on tour, the Jayhawks responded with renewed energy and purpose, anchoring the songs with accomplished musicianship. They were to tour throughout the year, but about the time that Sound Of Lies was released, their label, American, folded into its distributing company, Warner Bros. There was little label support at that time and they felt it would be better not to continue touring. They did continue to do shows in the Midwest throughout 1997 and 1998. In addition, Louris, Perlman, Johnson and Greene worked on a new Golden Smog album and tour.
In December 1998, it was announced that Karen Grotberg was leaving the band to pursue other creative outlets. She continued to perform and record with the Jayhawks until the birth of her daughter in the fall of 1999. She was replaced on keyboards and vocals by Jen Gunderman, formally of the North Carolina funk band Dag.
The Jayhawks spent much of 1999 in their own studio and Flowers Studio in Minneapolis recording their new album. They enlisted the talents of veteran producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, KISS, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd) and the result, Smile was released May 9, 2000 on the American/Columbia label. The Jayhawks toured the US, UK and Spain in support of Smile during 2000-2001. In July of 2001 Kraig Johnson left the band to tour with Iffy and was replaced by guitarist/pedal steel player Stephen McCarthy (formally of the Long Ryders). Keyboardist Jen Gunderman left the Jayhawks later in 2001.
In 2002 the Jayhawks toured as an acoustic trio (Gary Louris, Marc Perlman and Tim O'Reagan) while also recording the album Rainy Day Music with producer Ethan Johns. The album was released April 1, 2003 by American Recordings and distributed by Lost Highway Records. They toured extensively throughout 2003 in support of Rainy Day Music. After a busy year the Jayhawks decided to take a break and work on other projects. Early in 2005 Gary Louris and former Jayhawk Mark Olson did short tour together playing their own songs and classic songs from the Jayhawks catalog.
Safety Last 1983. Gary Louris on the right.
Jayhawks c. 1986. Mark Olson, Gary Louris, Marc Perlman and Norm Rogers
Jayhawks c. 1989. Thad Spencer, Marc Perlman, Mark Olson and Gary Louris.
Jayhawks 1992. Marc Perlman, Gary Louris, Mark Olson and Ken Callahan.
Jayhawks 1995. Karen Grotberg, Mark Olson, Tim O'Reagan, Gary Louris and Mark Perlman.
The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers. Razz Russell, Victoria Williams and Mark Olson. Photo by Steve Cohen.
Golden Smog 1995. Gary Louris, Dan Murphy, Marc Perlman, Noah Levy, Jeff Tweedy and Kraig Johnson.
Jayhawks 1997. Kraig Johnson, Tim O'Reagan, Karen Grotberg, Jessy Greene, Gary Louris and Marc Perlman. Photo by Marty Perez.
Jayhawks 2000. Jen Gunderman, Tim O'Reagan, Gary Louris, Kraig Johnson and Marc Perlman.
Jayhawks 2003. Stephen McCarthy, Tim O'Reagan, Gary Louris and Marc Perlman.