Me and Vic always thought we had this lifelong thing," is how he put it to me over dinner in London. "Where is my home/ How could I lose this in a day?" is how he assesses the situation in song on his first solo album The Salvation Blues. Regardless of what the likes of Britney, Amy and Pete Doherty would have us think, the musical mainstream doesn't have a monopoly on life imitating bad TV. Over the past few years, alt-country pioneer Mark Olson's life has played out a few dramas of its own. There's been divorce, depression and the small matter of a dead dog. There's also been rehabilitation and creative rebirth. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let's recap.
It is 1992 and – as Nirvana and grunge are going global – Olson's band the Jayhawks are perfecting the tight-harmonied country-rock they have been playing with little success for seven years. Suddenly – in a bold departure for a man who is at the time best known for springing the Beastie Boys on the world – Rick Rubin makes the Jayhawks the first signing to his fledgling American Recordings label. The hit single "Waiting for the Sun" and the album Hollywood Town Hall follow. The following year, in the wake of this success, the Jayhawks join Pearl Jam and Lou Reed on a tribute album to the "kooky" female singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, who has been diagnosed with MS and will use the royalties to pay her medical bills.
While recording his band's song for the record, Olson and Williams meet and fall in love and it isn't long before he makes the un-rock'n'roll decision to quit his band in its prime, get married and go to live in the Joshua Tree desert, California, with only an often-incapacitated Williams, her dogs and the ashes of the 1970s country rocker Gram Parsons for company. When Williams is in remission, the couple record and play shows together under the name the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers. Albums and gigs are charming if shambolic affairs. Olson is visibly besotted and Williams comes to rely on him for getting on and off the stage and even, at times, putting her guitar over her head. While lovable, the Creek Dippers are a pale shadow of what might have been for Olson: Rubin is the music business's Midas figure, later turning neglected acts such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers into multi-million sellers and rejuvenating the careers of Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond.
As Olson, 46, sits across the table from me, the story of how he lost his marriage, his home and pretty much everything else he ever cared about in the space of a couple of weeks spills out. "We'd done a crazy tour of Europe in 2004. We'd taken too many musicians with us and we'd worked so hard and made so little money that we both came back exhausted," he says. "I decided to enrol in college in Barstow [California] to study geology, which I'd been into since I was a kid. One day, I drove the half-hour to college and I kept driving."
Olson kept going until he reached Minnesota, the town he had grown up and formed the Jayhawks in. He told Williams he was staying with his songwriting partner from the band, Gary Louris, and he "fell into or was seduced into" a fling with an ex-girlfriend. Long story short, Williams found out, "flipped" and divorced Olson. "She's old-fashioned about things like that," he says. "You cheat on Vic and that's the end of it." I put it to him that the strain of looking after Williams had become too much and that he intentionally sabotaged the marriage. "It's more complex than that," he says. "A few weeks earlier, I'd run over one of Vic's dogs by mistake and I couldn't bring myself to tell her, so I buried it and lied to her about it. The episode put such a strain on me that when I was in Minnesota my behaviour wasn't rational. I mean, I was eating and doing normal things, but I was actually insane."
With the home and garden the couple had spent 10 years tending and building now out of bounds, Olson went to stay with his mother's sister for almost a year. "That's when the reality of what I had done hit me," he says. There followed a long, dark period that might never have ended had Olson not made contact with a journalist who had written about the Jayhawks many years earlier for Mojo magazine.
Charlotte Greig is not your average journalist. A Cardiff-based folk singer and writer, she is married to the novelist John Williams with whom she runs a monthly roots-music club night called Alt.Cardiff. Williams and Greig invited Olson to stay and Olson credits his time in Wales as the turning point of his rehabilitation. "They were easy to laugh," he says of the couple. "They turned me on to British folk artists such as Dick Griffin and Nick Jones and their work ethic – they would go and write in a shed at the bottom of the garden every morning – shamed me."
Soon, Olson was composing the songs that would become The Salvation Blues and slowly piecing his life back together. There was even a brief reunion with Williams in Cardiff – during which they would write the song "National Express" that contains the heartbreaking lines at the beginning of this piece – but in spite of one last-ditch attempt to salvage something, the marriage was over.
Which brings us to the here, the now and the future for Mark Olson. There is a new album with Louris waiting to be released. There is the possibility of rebuilding a relationship with his mother, with whom he largely lost touch over 30 years ago following the traumatic death of his father ("I was 13, he was 38. It was cold in Minnesota so he kept the doors of his hairdressing salon shut and died from inhaling too many chemicals"). And there is a new touring band that contains a Norwegian multi-instrumentalist called Ingunn Ringwold who seems to have captured Olson's heart, although all he will say is that "she does beautiful harmonies".
The night following our dinner, Olson and his new band (well, him, Ingunn and an incredible Italian violinist/professor of literature called Michele Gazish) are playing a low-key show at Dingwall's in north London. It is not yet showtime and, as his British publicist is telling me how Olson is "way too nice for the music business", the man himself appears on stage wearing the nondescript uniform of Americana: check shirt, work boots and trousers. Again, just as he had for Williams and the Creek Dippers, he is out before his fellow musicians, setting the stage so that others can come out and not have to worry.
This willingness, or perhaps need, to care for others has shaped and shifted Olson's life. From the two younger sisters he had no choice but to look after when their father died, to the fervour with which he put down roots in the desert to tend to Williams, Olson has, rarely for an artist of his talents, always put the living of life alongside the creating of art.
The previous night, I had told Olson a story of an earlier encounter. It was 1997 and the Creek Dippers had just made their first record. On a road trip with two friends, I had decided to travel to the desert to check out the room at the Joshua Tree Inn in which Gram Parsons had died. In our own motel room was a telephone directory containing the home phone number of one M Olson. Foolishly, and under the guise of wanting to buy three copies of the album, I called. Victoria answered. After the briefest of introductions, she was, I could sense, just about to invite us over for dinner when Olson got on the phone. "Look, I'll leave some copies of the record over at the Joshua Tree Inn. Thanks for calling. Have a good time."
"I'm so sorry about that," he says to me on a warm autumn night in London 10 years later. "But in many ways that sums up our marriage. She is so trusting that people can just join her circle and some of them don't deserve to be around her. I spent a lot of time protecting her from that. It turned me into an attack dog." It's just as well, I'm thinking, that burying dogs is something Mark Olson now has some experience of. *
'The Salvation Blues' is out now on Hacktone
Road To Salvation: The Olson/Williams story as told through music
Hollywood Town Hall - American Recordings (1992)
Two-part harmonies sung by voices so tight you can't slip a Rizla between them. Fifteen years on and the Jayhawks' major-label debut still sounds vital
Various Artists - Sony (1993)
Recorded to pay Williams' medical bills, Sweet Relief saw Lou Reed, Soul Asylum, Lucinda Williams, Pearl Jam and others covering Williams' songs
Victoria Williams - Atlantic/WEA (1994)
With a voice like Marmite, Williams' first album for Atlantic contains her first recorded duet with Olson, the tender "When We Sing Together"
The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers
Koch Records (2001)
The first of many acoustic musical postcards from the California desert has a ramshackle charm a million miles from the honed sound of the Jayhawks
Migrating Bird: The Songs of Lal Waterson
Various Artists - Honest Jons Records (2007)
Both Williams and Olson contributed to this tribute to British folkie Lal Waterson. The result is a tribute to all involved. SR