Happy 25th Anniversary to The Jayhawks’ third studio album Hollywood Town Hall, originally released September 15, 1992.
“There was a lot of blood spilled and sweat poured out and feet stepped on,” The Jayhawks principal vocalist and guitarist Gary Louris quipped to The Aquarian in 2011 regarding the recording of their major label debut for Def American, Hollywood Town Hall. “But I just remember the time being an exciting period, because it was just our transition from being kind of a regional band to being internationally known.”
Hollywood Town Hall accurately reflects that excitement through its beautifully conceived outpouring of prairie hymns that almost seamlessly mesh the harmonic and melodic simpatico of Louris and co-frontman Mark Olson. Bassist Marc Perlman and drummer Charley Drayton (the Jayhawks’ proprietary drummer, Ken Callahan, was allegedly subbed out by album producer George Drakoulias), are critical as the rhythm section, giving the tracks movement and soul.
The striking Martyn Atkins-conceived cover art for the album shows the band posed in mid-winter on a sofa outside the Town Hall building in Hollywood Township. “We just accidentally drove into this place 15 miles outside of Minneapolis called Hollywood, Minnesota,” Louris recalled in an interview with the StarTribune in 2011, “and drove by this kind of iconic-looking building that said ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ on the front. It was sort of fitting, after spending four months [recording the album] in Hollywood, California.”
“We all kind of have this drawn look about us, because it was damn cold,” added Olson. “So it was a true Minnesota picture in a way. It captured a bit of the feeling and showed that we were from a certain place, and it reflected our writing in certain ways.”
The sense of remoteness in that image is an apt reflection of the band’s singularity in the alt-country genre at the time, and distance from other mainstream music movements. “There was no scene that we felt like we were part of,” Louris explained to Rolling Stone in 2016. “If anything, there was Uncle Tupelo, but I think we were a little bit ahead of some of the other bands. There weren't a lot of people doing what we were doing at the time, and that was part of the thrill of it. It didn't fit in Minnesota and didn't fit anywhere else. There was never any kind of country-rock summit meeting. Even to this day, we're still outsiders. We never get acknowledged by any kind of Americana music festival. It's almost like we don't exist in some way, and that's OK. Part of it is probably a result of being isolated up here in Minneapolis.”
That being said, the album’s first single gave the Jayhawks their most substantial taste of popular acceptance. “Waiting for the Sun” commences with a dirty little guitar riff that’s startlingly similar to the one that would open Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (which was recorded and released a year later). Connections between the two songs via Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench’s appearance on Hollywood Town Hall and the Jayhawks’ stint as openers for Petty’s 1992 tour have been noted, but don’t appear to have resulted in much contest regarding who appropriated whom.
“Waiting…” almost feels like it was custom built to introduce the Jayhawks to radio audiences, capitalizing on the fantastic uplift of Louris and Olson’s vocal blend, which releases into a playful guitar outro in its last minute or so. The single would eventually land in the top twenty of Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks tally, and top thirty on its Modern Rock Tracks chart.
Evoking reasonable comparisons to the Everly Brothers, Neil Young, and The Flying Burrito Brothers, Louris and Olson make their greatest vocal impact when they’re able to linger a bit on ballads. “Crowded in the Wings,” sweetened with drips of harmonica and organ, ramps up to a satisfying chorus. “Take Me with You (When You Go)” is a bit less traditional in structure, underscored by buzzy guitars. “Nevada, California” is perhaps their most direct channeling of Young-esque intonation, albeit slightly brighter.
The loose, singable refrain of “Sister Cry” feels more authentically country than perhaps any other track on the set, but “Two Angels” comes close, with the background whir of classic rock-tinged instrumentation giving those tracks more crunch than twang.
Hollywood Town Hall would put the Jayhawks on course for future success, landing on Billboard’s Heatseekers album charts at number eleven, and at number 192 on its main Top 200 survey. In 2010, Def American would reissue the album with the addition of five unreleased tracks: “Leave No Gold,” “Keith & Quentin,” “Up Above My Head,” “Warm River,” and “Mother Trust You to Walk to the Shore.” Interestingly, the omitted selections are more stylistically varied than the official track list, especially “Keith & Quentin”’s two-step bounce and “Leave No Gold”’s alt-rock briskness.
Hollywood Town Hall was a coming-of-age for the Jayhawks on a number of levels. “We were green,” Olson explained to Rolling Stone. “And we were a little scared because, remember, we had been trying for years to get a record contract. Nothing ever clicked. So all of a sudden, we finally got the call, and we were nervous. It was the big time.”