After the blues, before the flood

Mark Olson’s latest album, The Salvation Blues (Hacktone Records, 2007), begins much like it ends—with the soft strum of acoustic guitars, the gentle caress of pedal steel, the slow churn of a snare drum and Olson’s nasal but engaging voice. What lies between the beginning and the end is the culmination of a tumultuous few years in the singer/songwriter’s life.

Saved by the blues: Mark Olson may be best known as the cofounder of the Jayhawks, but his 2007 album, The Salvation Blues, proves he’s a powerful solo performer in his own right.

In 2005, founding Jayhawks front man Olson found himself at a crossroads. He was recently divorced from fellow singer/songwriter Victoria Williams, with whom he had founded his post-Jayhawks Americana project the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, but had yet to make his mark as a solo performer. In the wake of the split, Olson toured as a solo act and lived for a time in Cardiff, Wales. While there, he began writing a collection of songs that would eventually become The Salvation Blues, an album that Harp magazine call’s “Olson’s best since his Jayhawks days.”

The album’s beauty is a testament to Olson’s artistry, hardly hinting at the breakneck pace at which it was recorded.

“We only had three days, so we had to find guys that could create that with a few overdubs,” Olson recalls, speaking by phone from a café in Portland, Maine.

Though the recording schedule was tight, Olson managed to create a lush compilation of tracks, filling out the songs he had been performing solo with an excellent team of collaborators and session players. The harmonies between him and singer Cindy Wasserman, for instance, are truly compelling moments in the album.

“It’s a thing that really adds something to those songs,” Olson offers. “When you’re singing harmony, that’s the most fun you can have in music.”

Although nearly a quarter-century into his career as a professional musician, The Salvation Blues is something of a milestone for Olson, marking the first time he has released an album as a solo performer. The shift is one he seems comfortable with, however.

“I spent a lot of time in groups, and I like groups,” he says. “I like putting groups together and finding the sound. But I had to put this out with my name on it.”

Given the intensely personal nature of the album, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that Olson’s major source of inspiration was his split from Williams.

“I started thinking about the past and going over every little thing,” he says. “I was trying to find a golden key—some little perfect thing that would make everything all right, and that didn’t work out. What worked was touring and playing music and letting things just take care of themselves.”

Although The Salvation Blues deals with the emotional fallout of divorce, it does so without ever falling into the trap of being explicit or bitter. Instead, audiences are treated to gorgeous melodies, harmonies that can melt the coldest of hearts and a country-rock sound that is timeless but never clichéd.

“The Byrds, Gram Parsons, and The Dillards—that’s always where I was coming from,” he explains. “That’s what has always influenced The Jayhawks in a way.”

And speaking of his old band, Olson and former Jayhawks songwriting partner Gary Louris recently finished a new album together, Ready For The Flood, their first collaboration in 13 years.

“We just sat down and did what we always did,” Olson says of the reunion. “We sat down and played guitar together. It’s really good.”

who: Mark Olson and Peter Case
what: Singer/songwriter-based Americana
where: Grey Eagle
when: Friday, May 9. 9 p.m. ($12. or 232-5800)

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