In the 1990s, The Jayhawks were prime progenitors of “alt-country” or “roots rock,” labels that often came to describe singer/songwriters or folk-leaning bands who dabbled in twangy guitars or dared sport cowboy shirts without a hint of hipster irony.
So it should shock no one that their newly reissued, long out-of-print 1986 Bunkhouse Records debut contains a traditional country feel.
The surprise, rather, at least to those who don’t already own one of the original 2,000 vinyl-only copies of The Jayhawks (a.k.a. “The Bunkhouse Album” and reissued by Lost Highway) is that it veers so far into straight-ahead honky-tonk territory, at times it sounds like a different band altogether. To that end, while the intertwined lead vocals of guitarists Gary Louris and Mark Olson would be the hallmark of The Jayhawks’ subsequent three albums (before Olson departed in the mid-’90s, with several more lineup changes to follow), Olson handles the duties on nearly the entire record, with Louris serving as more of a prominent backup singer.
The approach favored by these Jayhawks – Louris, Olson, bassist Marc Perlman (like Louris, a fixture in the band) and drummer Norm Rogers – is laid out from the start of leadoff cut “Falling Star,” which opens with pedal steel that envelopes the disc and contains a shuffling beat. It is a formula that dominates the disc and suggests The Flying Burrito Brothers as a strong influence.
The fledgling Jayhawks prove adept at this, but to their slight detriment they don’t branch out beyond it, making this by far the most unoriginal of their seven albums. Similarly, there are a disproportionate number of songs devoted to well-worn country music themes: namely heartache, stints in jail and boozing (there are at least five that deal with the latter topic, a number that even Merle Haggard might consider excessive).
The band wears these clichés proudly, as when Olson declares in “Misery Tavern,” upon setting foot in his saloon of choice, “Honey, I stopped in to drink/Tomorrow I’ll be back.” That said, there are moments where they nail the sweet sadness that makes for the kind of barroom standard that Olson just might hear in that roadside gin mill, such as “Let The Last Night Be the Longest (Lonesome Memory).”
Later, the barroom stomper “Good Long Time” — not coincidentally, one the album’s standout tracks — at last finds both Olson and Louris singing lead, a taste of the harmonic interplay between them that would mark the band’s material beginning with 1989’s Blue Earth and make 1992’s Neil Young-esque Hollywood Town Hall essential listening for the “No Depression” set. Back in 1986, however, there was not yet an identifiable label for that genre, and as this reissue shows, The Jayhawks were still a ways off from the sound that would help define “alt-country.”
Who knew that nearly 25 years ago, just calling them a bunch of country boys from the Twin Cities would have sufficed?
— By George Henn