Other bands have had worse luck than The Jayhawks, but few swam against the tide so forcefully or for so long. Formed in Minneapolis in the mid-’80s, the group drew on country music to create pop songs with a rootsy bent. Lumped in with the vaguely defined alt-country movement, the band hit the same invisible ceiling as others bearing the tag. Headed by the songwriting team of Gary Louris and Mark Olson, The Jayhawks suffered a further setback when Olson left the band following its should-have-been breakthrough album, 1995’s Tomorrow The Green Grass. Louris soldiered on for three more albums, each one better than the last, though none of them sold particularly well. When The New York Times wrote about the 2000 album Smile, the headline said it all: “What If You Made A Classic, And No One Cared?”
The best-of collection Music From The North Country provides ample evidence that whatever trouble came with it, the music made it all worthwhile. The band made terrific albums, but few matched it for crafting superlative singles. Songs like “Blue” and “Save It For A Rainy Day” have all the elements of classic pop, their easy hooks and sweeping emotions masking the masterful craftsmanship behind them. Olson and Louris—and later Louris and drummer Tim O’Reagan—have a stunning command of hooks and harmonies just as essential to the band as the much-commented-on twang that helped set it apart. Maybe that same twang kept the band from breaking out. Maybe the timing was wrong. Or maybe The Jayhawks just had bad luck. Whatever the case, the band made a lot of classics, and this collection proves it’s never too late to start caring about music this timeless.