Renewal and remembrance are hardly new thematic territories for Mark Olson. They’ve been at the core of his songwriting from his first days in the Jayhawks. But on “December’s Child,” his fifth album anchoring the sparklingly loose Creekdippers, he brings those elements to the fore with a combination of fragile beauty, deep-rootedness and playful joy. And he adds the element of reunion with his first collaboration with Jayhawk Gary Louris since Olson left the band in 1995.
From the inviting opener “How Can I Send Tonight (There to Tell You)” through the sad-toned title song through the folk-rock evanescence of “Say You’ll Be Mine” to the boisterous closer “One Eyed Black Dog Moses,” Olson paints scenes of community and care, of dedication and love. And it’s all drawn from the life he and spouse/musical partner Victoria Williams have made for themselves in the California desert, as well as from his Minnesota roots and her Louisiana birthplace.
“It’s been part of my secret agenda, telling people you can’t just live in a city, in a car your whole life,” Olson says. “It’s not good for you.”
Spare and haunting, the music too echoes worlds as far from the soulless rat race as is the couple’s home.
“I always liked that spooky music, like ‘Ode to Billy Joe,’ or melodically like [English folk musician] Bert Jansch,” says Olson.
Built from collaborative efforts by Williams (electric guitar, wah wah banjo, harmonica, vocals), Joshua Grange (guitars, bass, pedal steel, vocals), Michael Russell (violin, bass viola, mandolin, vocals), David Wolfenberger (bass, vocals), Danny Frankel (drums, percussion), Jon Birdsong (trumpet) and Don Heffington (drums on two songs), the songs bear a timeless grace and unvarnished honesty.
“These are the people I like to play with,” Olson says. “In their playing on the record, all their individual personality comes out. I have to take the lead in writing the songs and getting people in the studio, but once we’re there, it’s a group effort. They just play what they hear, make the decisions. Everyone pitches in.”
Tapping that aesthetic sensibility and communal spirit, Olson offers the most personal and poetic songs of his career, none more vivid than “Nercestrand Woods,” a fond recollection of stays at his grandmother’s farm in Faribault, Minnesota.
“My grandmother on my dad’s side lived on a farm, my dad had brothers on farms,” Olson says. “I had a band that busted up – I was 21 or something – and not much was happening in Minneapolis, so I went down there for a while. It really meant a lot to me, those days. We still stop in at the farms – we were just there while on a tour.”
In other songs just as personal, he celebrates the lives of a recently departed Samaritan of their desert community (“Alta’s Song”) and a cousin killed in Kenya while there in his duty as a priest (“Climb These Steps”). “She had a bunch of trailers, had a little thrift store and a lot of people trying to get straight from drugs and she would help them on the path,” he says of Alta. “She died about a year and a half ago and this song is about going to her wake. She had all these friends and liked people like her own children.”
Of his late cousin, he says, “He had a real positive take on life. I’m just talking in this song about keeping your head above water and keeping going. In a sense it’s a political thing for me to write about this. I’m writing about these things because they’re important things that society’s been cheapening. What we’re getting from the media isn’t important. I write about family and people I know. I put them up as something that stands for something that’s maybe a better way to go.”
The thread runs through such other songs as the title track, drawn from the loss of spirit and sense of place seen in Williams’ Louisiana, to the sadness of a child leaving home in “How Can This Be” to the joyous rootedness of “Back to the Old Home Place.” And it’s all tied together with a spiritual sense of love and mystery, as expressed in the exuberant gospel of “Still We Have a Friend in You.”
“That’s a gospel song in the sense of when you’re younger, you go away from God,” he says. “It talks about what it takes to get you back into the walk with God. A lot of times you don’t go back until you’re just down.”
"Where the previous Creekdippers albums were homemade affairs recorded at the Olson’s and Williams’ spread in Joshua Tree, “December’s Child” was almost entirely done in one focused week at a small studio in rural Monticello, Mississippi in the spring of 2001.
“It was really fun,” Olson says. “We did it while we were on the road playing shows and had a week off. We were on our way from Iowa to Atlanta and I just called [manager] Michael Nieves and when I said I was looking for a studio in the south, he said, ‘I know someone in Mississippi.’ A lot of times when you’re making a record you’ve been home a while and not playing together. But this was when we had the group on the road and it was great. We spent most of our time recording, but always had to eat between 11 and 2 because that’s when the cafes were open.”
Williams says that the combination of the setting and the songs made these her favorite Creekdippers sessions yet.
“He comes up with these songs and it’s, `Whoa!’ “ she says. “We hadn’t heard any of these songs when we started to record except for ‘One Eyed Black Dog Moses.’ I think he’s really coming into his own – not that he hasn’t always been a great writer, but the emotions are so well captured here.”
Basic tracks by Olson on piano or guitar and Frankel on drums were recorded in a rush of nine songs the first day alone, with the rest of the music flowing naturally from the band despite the unfamiliarity of the songs. And though it was, relatively speaking, a more formal circumstance than the recording of the previous records, Olson worked to keep the same feeling.
“The records we made at home we’d try to keep to eight tracks,” he says. “We were using 24 tracks out there, and they did the drums on a number of them, but we still like to keep it simple. Everything on the record is first, second or third takes. When we mixed we even took some things off. And my voice, I think it sounds good with spare sounds.”
After returning home, Olson and the Creekdippers added two more songs: “Say You’ll Be Mine,” a reteaming with Louris commissioned for possible use in a Disney movie, and “One Eyed Black Dog Moses,” a concert sing-along staple about a bedraggled hound, with colorful recitations by Williams.
“Gary came out [to Joshua Tree] and had some chords and a few words and we finished the song in about an hour,” Olson says. “It’s a basic love song, bluesy lyrics. It and ‘Black Dog Moses’ are not as experimental as some of the other songs. You just get back to rock ‘n’ roll. And it was easy to record. That’s Gary and me singing live. We had Don, who played on the Jayhawks’ album ‘Tomorrow the Green Grass’ play drums.
“And ‘One Eyed Black Dog Moses’ is one we’ve been playing for years and years. Vic has that rap stuff, Mike Russell on the low voice. Vic finished that song, it’s her co-writing with me.”
Back at Joshua Tree after finishing the record, Olson and Williams have continued to build the life that feeds the music.
“We’re working on a hot tub with a wood burning stove, making out of rock and cement,” says Olson, who has also been adding to a massive, ongoing tree-planting project on their property, now having passed the 250 count. “I can’t sit at a computer in an office. It’s much better outside.”