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Former Jayhawks member flies high going solo (and light)

By Brain Steinberg, May 1998

Some people like rich chocolate cake, replete with several layers and thick, sugary frosting. Mark Olson just wants the basic ingredients, thank you, and he's staying light on the extras.

How else to explain why the singer/songwriter left The Jayhawks for a life of making, producing, and selling his own albums? His first complete work, the rustically sweet "Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers," has steadily built an audience, despite being self-released.

And Olson says in a recent phone interview from his Joshua Tree, Calif., home that another effort, "Pacific Coast Ramblers," which should include Black Crowes guitarist Mike Ford, will be out "as soon as I can pull the whole thing together and put it through the system."

The musical process is definitely a new one for Olson, who announced that he would be leaving his old band after their impressive release, "Tomorrow The Green Grass."

That work marked a progression by the group. Where the band had once focused on fuzz-toned guitar and ruminative lyrics, things suddenly became more lush. Olson's voice wrapped around that of his songwriting partner, Gary Louris, while organs, strings and other sounds piled on for the ride.

"It's a little more relaxed now," Olson remarked. "There was definitely a striving for success with The Jayhawks, and I still do that, but it's more on a personal level now." With the band, he added. "I was definitely concerned with us working our way up the ladder. Now, I'm pretty much content with the way things are going."

That means focusing on the made-at-home "Creekdippers" album, which includes vocal assistance from Victoria Williams, Olson's wife, and musical accompaniment from Mike "Razz" Russell. Songs like "Flowering Trees," "Valentine King" and "Run With The Ponies," while somewhat creaky and low-fi, are still as sweet and catchy as anything else Olson has created.

For Olson, songwriting is "basically the same. I've always kind of mined one territory: my own personal experiences and my outlook on life."

What's different, the musician said, is getting his work out to the public. While self-producing and self-releasing appears to be on the increase with artists (witness recent efforts by such diverse individuals as Prince and Butch Hancock), it certainly isn't easy. Olson said he has sold almost 5,000 albums, and has had to reorder pressings three or four times. "I have a routine. I do it pretty much every day," he explained. "I go to the Post Office. I pick up the orders. I drop off last night's. I go on the computer."

While he has toured with his wife over the last few months, playing his songs during a portion of the evening, he intends to mount his own shows sometime soon.

Olson freely admitted he has worked his way around the traditional record company way of doing things. "When I was on a major label, the basic policy is you don't make money selling records," he said. "Every time someone tells me you don't do something, I say, 'Why is that?' I try and do something different. I found out you can make money when you're selling records. It's not that big of a deal." (available for $12 from Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, P. B. Box 342, Joshua Tree, CA 92252)