Music

My daughter wants to know why you haven't heard of the Jayhawks

Their 'Smile' is one of the great lost albums – and a Berkmann family totem

9 August 2014

9:00 AM

9 August 2014

9:00 AM

One of the many delightful aspects of having children is that you can get them to do things you are too old, lazy or important to do yourself. My disinclination to attend any sort of music festival, owing to a distaste for tents, chemical lavatories, mud and other people, has happily not passed down to my daughter, aged 15. Last month she went with a group of like-minded 15-year-olds, and large quantities of cider, to Latitude, which everyone says is much nicer than Glastonbury, if only because it doesn’t sprawl across several counties like a giant upper-middle-class shantytown. (The Guardian published an aerial photo of Glastonbury this year. It looked like Mexico City, only with a higher incidence of red trousers.)

We sent her off with her sleeping bag and 83 changes of clothes, which she thought had been put in the other car, while the people in the other car thought it had been put in her car. Being 15, and lovely, she laughed this off and everyone mucked in together. Being 54, and appalling, I would have stomped off in a rage to the nearest hotel. This is why I stay at home most of the time, and why, if I try to go out, no one will let me.


While at Latitude, my daughter discovered that an American band called the Jayhawks were playing. ‘The Jayhawks!’ she said. ‘They’re great! We’ve got to see them.’ Her friends looked bemused. My daughter had to explain that an elderly and confused relative of hers played their albums all the time, particularly one from 2000 called Smile, which contains two of her favourite songs, ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ and ‘Mr Wilson’. As they reached the Teetering On The Precipice Of Obscurity Tent (a short walk from Weeping With Rage At The Futility Of It All Tent), Martha realised that these now ageing American country-rockers were actually playing ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’. Like me she has a tendency to blub when she hears favourite songs of hers played live, but luckily she has excellent, high-quality friends who understand her ways. She didn’t know many of the other songs, but she said it was a terrific gig, the best of the weekend for her. (She has sound critical instincts. When a friend of hers texted her with ‘We’re like leaving now’, she texted back, ‘Are you leaving now or aren’t you?’)

But why didn’t her friends like it as much as she did? I had to explain that, although I played the Jayhawks incessantly, no one else did and they were barely known in this country. What’s more, ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ hadn’t been a hit, and ‘Mr Wilson’ hadn’t even been released as a single. (Each song has a melody to die for, and possibly to kill for.) She was aghast. Our musical tastes don’t coincide that often, but when they do, we tend to assume that the song concerned has been a worldwide number one.

I myself heard ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ once on the radio a year or two back, bought the album the same day and have been rooting around in the band’s catalogue ever since. The Jayhawks are essentially two singer-songwriters, Mark Olson and Gary Louris, with an ever-changing backing band and a nicely melancholic take on traditional country-rock forms. Their first few albums in the early 1990s gained great critical approbation and modest sales. Then Olson left to look after his ill wife and Louris carried on alone, rocking things up a little in a blatant attempt to court mainstream popularity. It didn’t work. Smile was reviewed in the New York Times under the headline ‘What If You Made A Classic And No One Cared?’ I think it’s one of the great lost albums, but hardcore Jayhawks fans didn’t like producer Bob Ezrin’s pop touches or his use of drum loops. The US critic Robert Christgau, who has a long career of missing the point, described it as ‘as vapid as late Poco and then some…Gary Louris’s boys aspire to the generalization level of transcendentalist parlor ballads, Hallmark cards, and, increasingly, Music Row.’ Maybe he should have listened to it.

The Jayhawks have since split up completely and reformed, with Olson back in the line-up. Mockingbird Time, from 2011, was solid and reassuring, if a little ramshackle, but Smile is the one, for the younger generation as well as the old.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • DT1961

    Wonderful band, they have never released a duff album, great songs, fantastic harmonies but commercial success has simply eluded them. Hollywood Town Hall and The Sound of Lies (pre and post Olson ) are their finest recordings. Smile is just a tad too rocky and over produced for my taste

    Oh and it’s a little unfair to say the Jayhawks have been no more than two songwriters with an ever changing backing band. Drummer Tim O’Reagan has written and sung some of their best stuff.

  • Freedom

    I think you mean f—–g red trousers, don’t you?

    Why don’t we listen to someone age 15? Because we only trust them if they like what their dads used to listen to (or still do) — that’s why. And because 15 ain’t what it used to be (a complete disregard for any age group other than itself has all but overtaken them, according to my teacher husband, who sees them every day).

Close