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Most of us, when Oscar night goes on forever and our chips and liquor begin to run low, start to get a bit restless. Last March, though, when Halle Berry won the Best Actress award and tearfully thanked practically everyone, local country singer Jill Olson was on the edge of her seat, phoning her own family and her bandmates to see if they were watching. It wasn't because Olson's a big Billy Bob Thornton fan, though; rather, her song from the Monster's Ball soundtrack, "Broken Up and Blue," was playing underneath the weepy Berry. As the starlet rambled on, the orchestra vamped the melody, stretching the arrangement for as long as humanly possible.
"I haven't gotten the royalty check yet, but I sure hope they paid me by the bar," jokes Olson, speaking on the phone from her day job at an ad agency in San Francisco.
Although she's best known for her work in the now-defunct, folk-rocking Movie Stars and the current honky-tonk favorites Red Meat, Olson also has a sweet tooth for jangly '60s-styled pop, as evidenced by her new solo album, My Best Yesterday. But as with her country compositions, Olson's pop approach is a little too idiosyncratic and retro for mainstream success, a fact she's well aware of. Even if she never sees her face on the cover of Rolling Stone, though, having her song played on Oscar night didn't suck.
Like pretty much every kooky Bay Area artist, Olson originally hailed from somewhere far, far away. In her case, it was Ottumwa, Iowa, the tiny town in which the fictional Radar O'Reilly of M*A*S*H*grew up. Although hick music wasn't cool in the Midwest in the early '80s, Olson discovered a passion for folk and country when she went to college. There, she began writing and playing bass with an Iowa City trio called the Stouthearted, which was kind of a punk-era update of '60s artists such as the Kingston Trio and Chad Mitchell. Over time, the Stouthearted found like-minded cohorts scattered across the U.S., in groups like the Washington Squares and the popular East Bay duo the Muskrats.
"I was really lucky to meet Jay Rosen of the Muskrats, because he really encouraged me to move out here," Olson recalls. "I knew I wanted to move to San Francisco because it was a community where you could be ... freaky. You could do what you wanted to do, play in a band or be a painter."
Migrating here in the mid-'80s, Olson reveled in a scene that mixed folk, country, and pop with equal ease. In addition to the Muskrats, artists such as the Terminators of Endearment and former punker Penelope Houston helped foster the booming acoustic-music revival. Soon after arriving, Olson met guitarist Michael Montalto; after the Stouthearted broke up in 1987, he persuaded her to join his new band, the Movie Stars. Olson and Montalto poured themselves into the group for several years, touring heavily and recording an album called Head on a Platter, before reluctantly disbanding in 1992.
"We never quite made that big step of being signed to a record label and quitting our jobs and all that," Olson recalls. "And at that time in my life, that was really important to me, I thought that's how you were a musician."
"Right after the Movie Stars broke up," she continues, "I got this call from John Wesley Harding, asking if I wanted to go on tour with him, which I did for three months. And that was a huge eye-opener, because here was somebody who was on a big record label, and here he got to stay at nice hotels, and there was some guy who would tune your bass for you when you went onstage! It was great fun, but when I got back to the Bay Area, I thought, 'Now, how am I going to play my music? What am I going to do?' And that's when I joined Red Meat. Because I thought, I just want to play music with my friends, and I'll take it from there and see what happens."
In 1993 Scott Young, a prolific songwriter with a penchant for old-fashioned country rhythms and goofy novelty-song twists, recruited Olson and Montalto for Red Meat. Brought on as the band's second songwriter and vocalist, Olson leapt at the opportunity to play "non-hyphenated" music -- i.e., pure country as opposed to the folk-rock mix of the Movie Stars. In addition, she was able to bond with some fellow Midwestern expats.
"Red Meat is really kind of like a family for me," Olson says. "Scott and the singer, Smelly Kelley, are both from Keokuk, Iowa, right near where I grew up. We have a lot of the same experiences, and we all moved here around the same time, so I feel like I have a pretty deep connection with them. Our audience is great, too: There's always a new crop of people who are discovering country music for the first time. They grow up thinking it's stupid, and then they turn about 23 and say, 'Wait a minute, Merle Haggard's pretty cool, Johnny Cash is great, I really like Loretta Lynn!'"
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