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Even Cowgirls Get the Blues 

Honky-tonker Jill Olson infuses her solo album with a touch of sadness

Wednesday, Jul 10 2002
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"Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I'm sorry. This moment is so much bigger than me." -- Halle Berry at the 74th Annual Academy Awards

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!'"

In 1997, the resolutely independent combo formed its own label, Ranchero Records, to produce and distribute its albums. As Red Meat's audience grew, so did its musical ambitions, and when it came time to record a second album, the band set its sights on roots-rock veteran Dave Alvin as producer. Olson in particular made a determined effort to enlist Alvin's aid -- "stalking" is the word she uses, although he prefers a milder, less prosecutable, term.

"Jill got my number from a mutual friend and literally pestered me for three months," he recalls, imitating her relentless phone messages from the time. ""You need to produce Red Meat, you need to produce Red Meat, you need to produce Red Meat. Hi! This is Jill Olson from Red Meat, you need to produce Red Meat!' Finally they sent me a CD, and I listened to it and I thought, 'Yeah, I could do this -- it'd be fun!'"

Alvin took up the band's cause, producing 1998's 13 and 2001's Alameda County Line. Like his work with independent country bands Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Boys and the Derailers, Alvin helped sculpt a clean, rock-tinged style recalling the "Bakersfield Sound" of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. That bold new mix eventually paid off last year, when Olson was approached after a Red Meat show in Los Angeles.

"This guy who's a film editor saw us and really liked us, and bought one of our CDs," she says. "Then he got in touch and said, 'I really like that song, "Broken Up and Blue," and I want to edit it into this movie I'm working on, even though it's kind of a long shot it'll ever get into the movie.' And I said, 'Oh, fine -- go for it.' But then the director really liked the edit, and later they put it on the soundtrack album. I was thrilled!

"Then we were watching the Academy Awards over at a friend's house, and I was being really cynical and snotty, making fun of people's clothes and not really paying attention. All of a sudden we hear John Williams conducting the Academy orchestra, playing 'Broken Up and Blue,' and I turned to my husband and said, 'Is that my song?' And God bless Halle Berry, because she kept crying and crying and she couldn't stop herself, so the orchestra kept playing it over and over again.

"Of course," laughs Olson, "my theory is that it was just the easiest song on the soundtrack for Williams to score, because it had the least number of chords."


Although she enjoys playing country, Olson also loves writing pop songs, an interest that surfaced in 1996 on her first solo record, The Gal Who Would Be King. With her new sophomore effort, My Best Yesterday, Olson again indulges her passion for '60s-style pop, utilizing the bright, chiming guitar sound she remembers from a youth spent listening to the Beatles, Beach Boys, and the Lovin' Spoonful.

Many of the songs had been kicking around for years, but things finally jelled last year when she found herself with a lot of free time. "I had this long-term freelance job that just ended suddenly," she says. "So I had three months to devote to music, just me working at home in Oakland. I had been focusing most of my creative energy on Red Meat, but I had some songs that I was working on that were just not Red Meat material, and I thought, 'Well, here's my chance!'"

Dave Alvin was the natural choice to produce the new album, even with -- or because of -- Olson's intention of diverting from a country vibe. "I'm a big fan of the Bakersfield sound, and I'm getting to be kind of a quasi-expert on how to duplicate it," he chuckles. "But I'm actually trying to get away from that now, because I got a bit typecast as that kind of producer, and I don't want everything I do to sound like 'a Dave Alvin record.' So I was really glad when Jill wanted to do her solo record, because it was a different kind of sound."

While My Best Yesterday has a lot in common with Olson's 1996 debut, it's also less bouncy and more doleful. Olson says the record's still influenced by the AM radio sound she grew up with, but now she's channeling Dusty Springfield instead of the Byrds. Also, her emphasis in songwriting has changed the more she's worked at her craft.

"In my twenties, I think I didn't care so much if my songs made sense or not," she says. "But I think as I've grown older I'm more interested in how do these words sound together, and also in what is the message of this song, how do I want it to end? I think that my songs have become more simple, but I think that they're not as made-up, they're more honest and about real things.

"It's not a concept album, but I would say that a lot of the songs are about things that were going on in my life, as well as things that were going on in friends' lives," Olson continues. "Like, all the depressing things were about my friends, and all the happy things were about my life. But you can't really say that, right? Because then people will say, 'Hey, wait! That song was about me and my wife breaking up. How dare you!'"

With a second album now under her belt, Olson says she looks forward to touring to promote it, although performing solo can be pretty daunting. "It's kind of scary, because I have to sing all of the songs," she admits. "With Red Meat, we work as a collective and we all take turns. But with my own show, I'm singing all the songs, so there's a lot more pressure. But I also really enjoy it." And if going solo gives her a chance to break out her thrift-store buckskin fringe and cowgirl boots, that's even better. "Sure, the spotlight's on me -- so I have to be sure to wear something really nice!"

About The Author

Lawrence Kay

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