VISITING ACT: Mark Olson 

From Lost to Triumphant: Former Jayhawk Mark Olson is on a fresh new musical journey

Mark Olson
w/ Kentucky Shoes
Thurs. May 8
9 p.m.
$12, $10/advance
The Map Room
1650 Sam Rittenberg Blvd.
(843) 769-6336
www.themaproom.net
www.myspace.com/markolsonmusic

"Winter Song" from the album The Salvation Blues
Audio File

"Salvation Blues" from the album The Salvation Blues
Audio File

"There have been periods of time where I've gotten away from music for a spell," says veteran songwriter Mark Olson, speaking in his pleasant, Midwestern voice from Louisville, Ky., where he and his latest combo are kicking off their spring tour. "In a way, that's been good for me. I always come back with a fresh mind and kind of start over. I've always changed a little bit as the years go by. There's always something I'm reaching for."

Perhaps best known for his work with pioneering, Minneapolis-based Americana/roots ensemble The Jayhawks from the mid '80s through the mid '90s — and for his collaboration with songwriter Victoria Williams (the two were married until 2005) in the California-based twang-pop act The Creekdippers — Olson recently veered in a new musical direction.

Olson fell into a bit of a rut — emotionally and professionally. He teamed up with Jayhawk Gary Louris for two brief tours in the winter of 2005 and the spring of 2006, but spent most of his time pretty bummed out. Fortunately, a meandering series of unusual events led to the making of his first proper solo album, The Salvation Blues (Hacktone).

A footnote on the album cover reads, "A two-year musical journey through the heart of loss and redemption, in words and music." That journey started with a marital break-up and a flight to Cardiff, Wales, but detoured into a brighter and fresh-minded situation.

"I'm back and involved in the details of touring, recording, and playing," Olson says of his last year. "I do what I do, which is the best thing. When you get outside of a life where you feel like you've lost your purpose — that's a bad place to be. So I've reengaged with the purpose in life [laughs]."

It's hard to imagine that much of his random skipping from country to country was planned out at all. Luckily, what began as an aimless mope session gradually took shape as a creative streak and productive songwriting spiel.

"I didn't plan that out at all," Olson half-laughs. "That was not a good period in a way, but it worked out okay in the end. I met these really nice people on the road [folk singer and writer Charlotte Greig and her novelist husband John Williams] and I ended up staying with them in Wales, and then Norway, and then Poland, before coming back to the States. [During the first visit], they were really hard-working people and I was feeling really sorry for myself and not doing much. They couldn't stand that, and basically said, 'Get up off your butt.' And I did. I got back in the swing of things and started working again. I ended up putting my own conversations into an album, which was a good way to do it at the time."

The Salvation Blues came out in June. Over the last year, Olson and his international backing band — professor and violinist Michele Gazich and singer/multi-instrumentalist Ingunn Ringvold — toured North America and Europe in support of it.

"I have a great new band with two Europeans," Olson says. "Ingunn is from Norway, and she plays the djembe and piano. She's a real musical talent. Michele Gazich is from Italy, and he plays the violin, I've known Michele for six years. They're both very good. This group has been playing together for over a year. We've done over a hundred shows, so we really have it together. Even with the Creekdippers, I've always tried to do something a bit different. I've always tried to experiment a little bit. I enjoy the violin. This is going for a little more 'folk/world' sound, basically.

"I've basically had three groups, and they've all been very different," Olson adds. "Rather than have new people play like a prior group, I've always allowed them to play new material the way they lay the best. It's worked for me on the artistic level. I just feel that what I'm doing today is the best I can do today in that range. Since we've played so much recently, my next goal is to record an album with this group. We've all made the investment with our time, so it'd be great to get it on tape."

The Salvation Blues is a pastoral collection of heartfelt tunes, embellished with plenty of brushy cymbal work, reverby acoustic guitar, and pedal steel flourishes. Despite the elegant production quality, there actually wasn't a lot of time spent in studio doing the recording. Producer Ben Vaughn helped Olson compile and arrange the strongest tunes, and things came together quickly.

"That's usually the way it is when you spend a lot of time and effort in the beginning," Olson says of the album. "The final thing is a culmination of all that work. Ben was great help over the nine months or so that we wrote the music. He was telling me to keep sending songs, and he got into it. It always helps to have someone like that."

At the Map Room, Olson and his two accompanists plan to play slightly different renditions of the album's tracks (plus a handful of Jayhawks classics) featuring their unusual instrumentation and approach.

"It's a different sound now," says Olson. "I play acoustic guitar and get kind of a rhythm going, and Ingunn gets into it, and we get a groove going. Michele plays really beautiful romantic stuff, which is different from the pedal steel, but related in a way. We play rock places and small places, and we just always get a groove going. We capture the essence and the energy of the album."


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