It seems odd that Salvation Blues is Mark Olson's first true solo recording. After his tenure with the Jayhawks, Olson left the band to spend more time in Joshua Tree with his then-wife, fellow singer/songwriter Victoria Williams. Olson released a quartet of recordings with the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers (aka the Creekdippers), always with Williams either sharing the billing or in the band. Olson and Williams divorced in February of 2006, and he lost the home he built in Joshua Tree as a result. He took off on a solo tour of Europe where the sketches for a number of the songs on Salvation Blues were written. Produced by Ben Vaughn and released on the aesthetically brilliant HackTone label, the CD contains 11 songs; the first edition of the CD comes in a small, book-shaped digipack with slipcover and notes, lyrics, and photographs by Ingunn Ringvold and Krissie Gregory. Former bandmate Gary Louris co-wrote "Poor Michael's Boat" and "National Express," and Williams co-wrote "Winter Song." Sonically, Salvation Blues is pristine if simple. Vaughn keeps things uncluttered and clean, allowing just enough of a mix for Olson's beautifully impure voice to rise to the top unfettered. Musically, while Olson's been following his muse -- that weds country-rock, folk, and other American roots forms -- since the very beginning of his long career, there are few surprises in composition. His sidemen on this session include the great, undercelebrated guitarist Tony Gilkyson, pedal steel and dobro boss Greg Leisz, bassist David J. Carpenter, Michele Gazich on violin, Zac Rae on keyboards, drummer Kevin Jarvis, with Ringvold playing acoustic guitar and Louris and Cindy Wasserman contributing backing vocals.
Ultimately, it comes down to the songs, though. And Mark Olson has them here in spades. with the presentation being so utterly simple, a lot of weight rests not only on the singer, but on the lyrics and melody. And Olson delivers, though the often shining optimism of his offerings has been tempered in places by grief, loss, and the workaday living of everyday life that blends dream and reality as time rushes forward; still he champions humble human nobility in choosing life over death each and every morning. It's a choice for Olson's protagonists, and it needs to be made each and every day without forgetting -- to forget is to choose one of them anyway. "My Carol" opens the set brightly enough. It's a country waltz that could have been written by the Bob Dylan who gave us the words to "Love Minus Zero/No Limit": "I have come to fetch my Carol/I have wandered in the muck/Dirty sheets outside the windows/Lies that poor folks never tell rich ones/Louder still is the sound of love....I know the beauty of her song/The blood of priests runs in her veins...My love for her is a speckled bird/An animal bleeding in the snow/Slink back under the fallen step/Of black rites and crooked sticks/Unforeseen victims of modern sin/I walk the dark rain and then no more/Daylight rings the bells of joy." The guitars entwine and ring gentle together, the beat slips and shimmers, and Olson delivers his words so easily, as if his observations were plainly seen by everyone -- yet held in secret.
On the very next cut, "Clinton Bridge," that optimism gets pushed further, though it takes into account the weight of the decision. A lone acoustic guitar acts as the spine for his vocal before the band enters. While they shore up the body of the tune: "I woke before the sun/Which is the way between the heart and the soul/You spoke with my words/Tangled up here inside/Some people came here to die/We came here to live..." Gazich's violin takes the instrumental break and brings the tune to near soaring levels, but the singer is repeating that refrain for a reason, it's conviction tested by tragedy. The gorgeous harmonies of the Jayhawks are brought to mind on "Poor Michael's Boat," as Olson and Gary Louris sound together on the refrains. Their voices seem earthy and timeless, and the track shuffles with fine B-3 playing and Greg Leisz on mandolin. It's a bittersweet tune that chooses trust in very doubtful circumstances. There are deep overtones to both "National Express" and "Winter Song," written with Williams. Both are love songs, but the latter, a dobro-fueled country two-stepper is heartbreaking: with the sliding six string and Olson's acoustic keeping time with the snare, he sings: "I remember our winter song/Slipping on a frozen lake/There I miss you when you're gone/Oh this winter song/Another cup of brutal wine/Dreams that once seemed so sweet/Are silent empty streets....." The title track is a killer country rocker, done mid-tempo with edgy Telecasters a Hammond B-3, acoustic six-strings, mandolin, and popping snare, whispering hi hat and kick drum. Olson sings of a truth so profound and glittering in the ashes, we almost dare not think of it: "There's such joy and sweet moments/To be found in this world/We know they'll come to an end/Just how makes our hearts hurt/Salvation blues and these blues will help us all/No light like your light/until we do something good..." The guitar solo bites down with clipped, short phrases, reminding the listener of the lyric and sending her back into a reverie of the very moments Olson sings of. The set closes with "My One Book Philosophy," another song steeped in the kind of simple man's Either/Or that Soren Kierkegaard had to nearly sweat blood to write. Olson doesn't need the rhetoric; he has the life experience that proves the mettle. Accompanying himself on the Wurlitzer, he takes it out in a nearly mournful whisper that acknowledges the previous; it's sweet memory disguised as a judge and jury; a ballad that covers a life sentence, but there's no bitterness, only regret, as much by the coming apart of dreams as by remembering them. It's a melancholy ending to an utterly moving, and deeply poetic recording that finally brings Olson out from the comfortable shadows, first as a member of the Jayhawks, and then as part of the husband-and-wife team that were at the heart of the Creekdippers. Salvation Blues is the kind of contemporary singer/songwriter record that we need more of: poetry as part and parcel of life itself, captured in a music so utterly simple and convincing, it is almost impossible to separate it from the artist who made it -- except that it recalls our own experiences so closely in places we have no choice but to give thanks to the man who exposed our inner selves even as he exposes his own. Salvation Blues is stripped down, modern desert country music at its very best.