Primer #1 - The Jayhawks

The Primer is a semi-regular column wherein contributors compile a 60 minute playlist of a band near and dear to their heart. Using personal listening anecdotes, notes about specific tracks and a brief overview of each artist, The Primer is both a way for our contributors to trace their musical genealogy and for our readers to gain a new perspective on an artist they may have missed or dismissed.

For the Primer's first edition, musician, songwriter and avid vinyl collector Jeff Gower elucidates his love for The Jayhawks.

The first Jayhawks I heard was Tomorrow the Green Grass in 1995. My buddy Joel Kuiper turned me on to them based on my love of country music (Waylon , Willie, Cash), of country-rock (Burrito Brothers, Skynyrd), and alt. country (Tupelo, Lyle Lovett). I feel the Jayhawks have elements of all these sub-genres, and were, of course, right up my alley. They are important to me for that very reason; they tie together the music of my youth and the music I was exploring at the time, and would influence many of my future musical choices.

Songwriting is also vitally important to me from an artistic point of view and I believe that Gary Louris is among the best of my lifetime.  Put that together with having a uniquely beautiful voice, solid multi-instrumental skills, and surrounding himself with greatly talented cohorts, and you have a recipe for musical genius.

For albums, I would start with Tomorrow the Green Grass. Not only is it my personal favorite, but I think it’s a good representation of where they were coming from and a good indicator as to where they were going as a band. You can hear the natural progression through this album, the end of their “early years.” Without Mark Olson for their next three albums, they would evolve considerably.

I’m not including anything from either their first album, commonly known as The Bunkhouse Album, or their last, Mockingbird Time, because I do not feel these are good representations of the band as a whole. I tend to think of Blue Earth as their true first album because it is more coherent and more obvious that you are dealing with a “band” rather than some guys sitting around making some recordings. And my opinion is that Mockingbird Time, while it has some good moments, is an album they would not normally have made, but for some reason felt obligated to Mark Olson to allow him one last hoorah with the band. Not sure? Anyone who might be drawn to be a Jayhawks fan based on my play list can explore those two albums on their own, and no song from those albums would help to sway a potential fan as far as I’m concerned.

1.) I’d Run Away (from Tomorrow the Green Grass)

Those damn harmonies. How do they do that? Follows Blue on the album, and by the time I was done listening to this number for the first time, I was sold. I became a Jayhawks fan during this track.

2.) Blue (from Tomorrow the Green Grass)

It’s the opening track on one of the greatest albums ever recorded. I had to choose it. Really their only hit, too. I think it’s been in a couple films, plenty of college radio play, and even some lite-rock crossover attention. Instantly infectious.

3.) Bad Time (Mark Farner cover – from Tomorrow the Green Grass)

The Jayhawks don’t do many covers, but they do the Hell outta this one. I remembered the track from my youth. It didn’t get a ton of play when Farner did it, but when I heard it, I noticed it. The Jayhawks added their own sound, but kept the power-pop/classic rock vibe intact. They’re a Mid-west rock band; of course they nailed this.

4.) Settled Down Like Rain (from Hollywood Town Hall)

I’m going with lyrics on this track. They really speak to me. Poetic, with a great story. And the insane beauty of that melody line… Sigh. My favorite track on Hollywood Town Hall.

5.) Two Angels (from Hollywood Town Hall and Blue Earth)

This is one of two tracks that appear on both Hollywood Town Hall and Blue Earth. I really like both versions immensely. When you listen back to back, you really get the sense that they knew where they were going, and exactly how to get there. Everything added in the second version was right. It kept the image of the first and enhanced it to perfection.

6.) Martin’s Song (from Hollywood Town Hall and Blue Earth)

This is the second track. Ditto.

7.) The Man Who Loved Life (from Sound of Lies)

I wasn’t immediately friendly to this album. Truthfully, I judged it before I had heard much of it. Mark Olson had left after Tomorrow The Green Grass. The honest, mid-west twang that I loved was leaving their sound, too. But after I sat down with it, it became a favorite. This track is the first one I was drawn to on the album. That chord progression kills me. I want to write progressions like that!

8.) Think About It (from Sound of Lies)

I love this track because of its dynamics. This spans from an almost elegant sound into a full-on jam. This is one of Jayhawks heaviest numbers, and it is great!

9.) Big Star (from Sound of Lies)

This song is pure power-pop; rock guitar, great lyrics. Sweet, but with an edge; just how they should be.

10.) Smile (from Smile)

If I wasn’t immediately friendly to Sound of Lies, I was downright frigid with Smile. I asked the dogs out loud if they heard drum machines too. And where was the tiniest shred of country twang? But again, the songs won me over. I think this album is lovely.

11.) (In My) Wildest Dreams (from Smile)

The dance beat really turned me off on this number right away. And honestly, I’m still not a fan of it. That’s mainly why I chose this one. Someone else might be drawn to them because of that sound. What the Hell do I know? Plus, really, some great guitar work.

12.) Tailspin (from Rainy Day Music)

This album is so dynamic. I cannot overstate how impressed I am with the writing, performance, and production on this record. This is an album to be incredibly proud of. Why this wasn’t the biggest album in the world at the time boggled my mind. I still can’t believe it. It really has it all. If this track doesn’t get you, you have no pulse. When that banjo comes in? Whoa!

13.) All the Right Reasons (from Rainy Day Music)

This is a pure and simple love song. Aren’t they always the best?

14.) Save It for a Rainy Day (from Rainy Day Music)

There are several tracks I could’ve chosen from this album and been happy with my final choice. But, I just adore this song. Yes, that is one of the most gorgeous choruses ever. EVER! But, it’s not just that. I can’t stop singing this song for days after hearing it. It pops into my head as often as any song, and more than most. It’s sad and beautiful and perfect.

Jeff Gower teaches Middle School, brews his own beer, is the proud owner of a fierce beard, shops for vinyl whenever he gets the chance and plays guitar, sings and writes songs for a power pop band call The Stick Arounds.