By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Speaking from his tour bus just outside Seattle, Mark Olson sounds revitalized and downright giddy. Things are good at the moment for the former leader of the influential alt-country act The Jayhawks.
"I have a real interesting band," Olson says of the group of musicians backing him on his current solo tour. "It seems like we've been playing every night since August."
And so Olson continues his unlikely rebirth. After splitting with wife Victoria Williams in 2005, Olson lost his home and studio in Joshua Tree, California, and appeared to be spiraling down the darkest of paths.
But an unlikely alliance with former Jayhawk member Gary Louris and a career-defining solo effort gave—and continue to give—Olson good reason to be excited.
"Gary and I have already recorded a record together that will come out in the fall or winter of this year," Olson says. "But for now, I am concentrating on this tour and this album."
The album is The Salvation Blues, Olson's stark and beautiful return to what made The Jayhawks so great to begin with: deceptively simple melodies graced with lyrics that dig deeply into the well of remembrance and regret. "I have wandered in the muck/Dirty sheets outside broken windows," Olson sings on the disc's opening cut, "My Carol," walking that fascinating line between poetry and autobiography. Not since 1989's The Blue Earth, the brilliant sophomore effort from The Jayhawks, has Olson sounded so confident, with both his lyrics and his singing.
"I put a lot into the songs on the new album," he says. "But we only had a few days to record them, and I thank God that everybody found their parts real fast."
Olson credits producer Ben Vaughn and session players such as Tony Gilkyson with helping shape the backdrops for Olson's fragile muse.
"Tony Gilkyson is just a fantastic guitar player, and Ben got everybody together at the right time," Olson says.
The Salvation Blues has received the best reviews of any Olson solo release and even debuted at No. 2 in Norway—just behind the recent Graduation release from Kanye West. That puts Olson in good company, alongside the likes of 50 Cent, who similarly (and famously) failed to topple Graduation when his album debuted alongside West's here in the States.
"We've done well in Scandinavia, of all places," Olson says. "I think the publications there have really given me a fair shake. I always do tours across Europe, and four of my albums have been released on a German label."
So it's no surprise, then, that Olson's current band includes two players he met while overseas: Michele Gazich, an Italian violinist, and Norwegian guitarist Ingunn Ringvold.
"Between the three of us, we get a lot of diverse sounds," Olson says. "We're doing Jayhawks songs, but it has a different feel since they are European."
Olson is happy to be exposing his new bandmates to the States, especially in places like Dallas, which he himself hasn't been to in a while.
"It was 2004, the last time I was in Dallas," he says. "I think I am ready for my return."