Photo: Vivian Johnson
The New York Times once semifamously wondered if The Jayhawks might be the best band you’ve never heard of.
“What If You Made a Classic and No One Cared?” went the title of a review of the Twin Cities-based band’s album “Smile,” which was released in 2000.
What if they made another classic, and people still weren’t paying attention?
“I think it is a classic. It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done. It’s a Jayhawks record. But what comes through is the joy of making it,” says Karen Grotberg, who has played keyboard and sang harmony vocals in the band since 1992.
The album she’s referring to is the 2016 release “Paging Mr. Proust,” the band’s ninth studio effort. The Associated Press called it “a timeless gem that belongs among the best of the group and its loose, expansive genre.”
And it proved the band wasn’t finished.
What: The Jayhawks
When: 8:30 p.m. April 9
Where: George’s Majestic Lounge, Fayetteville
“It was fresh and new. We’re viable, and we have something to say. We still have a place,” Grotberg says.
Even if this album didn’t burn its way to the top of the charts, either.
This isn’t the first time the band has been criminally underrated. And it’s not the first time the band was nearly written off for dead. The Jayhawks started in the mid-1980s as one of the founding members of the alternative country movement. Songwriters Gary Louris and Mark Olson teamed up to write most of the songs on the band’s major label debut, “Hollywood Town Hall.” Grotberg joined for the tour that followed. The band followed with several more country/folk/rock recordings, including “Tomorrow the Green Grass,” which featured the song “Blue” – a minor hit in Canada but one that failed to gain traction in the states.
Olson left the band suddenly following the release of “Tomorrow the Green Grass.” Left with a new lineup and a blank slate, the two albums that followed were more rock and pop oriented. Olson joined a reunited Jayhawks at a festival in Spain in 2008. He stayed on board to help record the 2011 album “Mockingbird Time,” the band’s first after an eight-year break. Then, he left again.
“It was a little bit of deja vu,” Grotberg admits.
Left again with a clean slate, the band contemplated their move. The momentum had already been started. The band was touring again, having fun and working through new material. There was some notion that the band’s primary songwriter, Louris, would break away for a solo record, which he did in 2008 with the album “Vagabonds.”
“It seemed like we were done. Gary had a lot of songs, but we realized not all of them were solo songs. Some of them were Jayhawks songs,” Grotberg said.
Into the studio they went, and with some help from special guest Peter Buck from R.E.M., the result was “Paging Mr. Proust.” His approach in the studio, coupled with that of producer Tucker Martine (who has previously worked with The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Neko Case, Spoon and dozens more), tamed some of the band’s famed studio precision. Grotberg describes it as energetic and raw but also well rehearsed.
The band’s tour behind that record kicks off on Friday in Kansas and comes to Arkansas for a Sunday-night show at George’s Majestic Lounge. Texas-based Americana songwriter Greg Vanderpool will open the show.
Grotberg says the band will focus on “Paging Mr. Proust” during the set in Fayetteville, but will mix in a variety of songs. They’ll play fan favorites, which is a strange concept for a band that no one knows. But it suits The Jayhawks just fine. Because until you are one of those fans, they are just the best band you don’t know. Yet.