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August 21, 2007

Ex-Jayhawk Mark Olson celebrates the struggle

Mark OlsonSaturday, Aug. 25930 Listening Room930 Mary St.www.the930.org$12; 8 p.m.All agesMark Olson comes to the 930 Listening Room on Saturday, Aug. 25.“Can you hold on a minute? Victoria is on the other line.”It’s unclear which is more surprising — the fact that the musician on the phone assumes that I know about his personal life, or the fact that the musician is still friendly with the woman whom I, in fact, know to be his now ex-wife.The musician, Mark Olson, is hardly a household name, though he has spent the last two decades accumulating fans around the world with a mature, heartfelt blend of folk, pop and rock music. From 1986 through 1996, he led the Minneapolis-based band The Jayhawks with partner Gary Louris. On the way to gaining some minor radio play with the single “Blue,” The Jayhawks had become an unfortunate embodiment of the excesses of the major record companies. Expenses for recording albums and filming videos had put the band in debt for more than $1 million. Though Olson had been the main songwriter in the early days, Louris had become an equally strong leader, pushing the band in a poppier direction than Olson had envisioned.Olson married singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, and the couple moved to the California town of Joshua Tree. “It’s gotten more commercialized, more strip malls, but in general, it’s still a very beautiful, more relaxed, small-town kind of place,” he says. Williams had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As they dealt with her health, Olson continued writing songs that were more folk-based than the increasingly Beach Boys-inspired, polished songs of The Jayhawks. While the Louris-led band continued on for three more albums, Olson and Williams formed a new band. The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers found the Olsons joining collaborator Razz Russell. Cassettes appeared through mail order, and then CD issues signaled Olson’s return to the music business. “I’ve had a bunch of other jobs — teaching, working with students with special needs — but, yes, I’m able to do this full-time, and I’m glad. I enjoy the technical aspects of playing with the instruments, tuning and finessing the strings.”With more than seven releases, the collective formed a hub for the Palm Desert roots music scene. After he divorced Williams, Olson became unsure of what to do next. He found shelter from friends while traveling in Europe, like Jason Bourne with a guitar. “My band now has friends of mine from all over. There are a lot of great people to work with over there.”The album he came back with, The Salvation Blues, is his first true official album. Rather than give in to the unhappiness he had experienced, he wrote songs celebrating the struggle. Some people come here to die/We came here to live, he sings in “Clifton Bridge.” The formerly reclusive, 44-year-old Olson is back in sight, even filming a video that can be seen on his MySpace page. He has co-written with both Williams and Louris, and the former Jayhawks plan to spend 2008 writing and recording together. Olson was here last month for WFPK’s Waterfront Wednesday. He returns for a show at the 930 Listening Room, at 930 Mary St. in Germantown, Saturday at 8 p.m., and earlier that day at ear X-tacy (1534 Bardstown Road, 452-1799) for a free in-store appearance and signing at 2 p.m. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com