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June 12, 2007

Note Books - Mark Olson

The Note Books series features musicians discuss their literary side. Past contributors have included John Darnielle, John Vanderslice, and others.

From his days as a principle songwriter (with Gary Louris) of the Jayhawks to his work with his then-wife Victoria Williams in the Creekdippers, I have long been a fan of singer-songwriter Mark Olson.

Olson's solo album, The Salvation Blues, is released today, and reunites the singer-songwriter with his former Jayhawk bandmate Gary Louris on three songs.

In his own words, here is Mark Olson's Note Books entry:

There is a lonely train called “reading” in your youth. My mother had warned me against it; her brother had done it. While others ran wild in the woods, my Uncle sat there and read. Other horror stories followed about the effects of reading on him—Korea, detention, Iowa, to name a few—and I saw him a few more times before he died, and loved him, but was scared with him and for him ‘cause he was lonely. I punched my ticket for that train the day I read Desert Gem Trails by Mary Francis Strong. I wasn’t in my youth and Christmas will never be in June—I was near forty and about ready to lose everything I ever worked for.

At first, I didn’t go out into the desert alone—too big, too hot, too scary. I tried to drag other people out there with me. I had a van and I would saddle up to anyone with this book in my hand. Then I would say that she was a geologist and wrote for a magazine in the 50`s called The Desert. I pointed out the pictures she had drawn herself; they were maps of entire mountain ranges, with roads leading back through them. There you could find cherry opal, banded agate—any gem stone in any color swirling there right before your eyes, on the ground waiting to be picked up, carried home, and displayed for your family and friends. I went pretty far, even after the friends were gone, tired of bouncing down dirt tracks and getting stuck in the sand. I bought a rock saw and was cutting the rocks and polishing them into cabochons just like she said could be done in the book.

Mary Francis Strong had a philosophy to tell just between the lines about directions and whether there was water within 20 miles of there. She didn’t start off with her ideas like most people; they settled in on you, one article after another. You can’t find the magazine in city bookstores, only at thrift stores that carry the stuff of old people when they’ve gone away from Palm Springs. There are only about twelve articles and the one book; they all have a title that includes the name of the place she has given to where you are going. When you get there, it’s just like she said, only things don’t work out the way I wanted them to at the end of the 15th reading of her story. I ended up running over my dog, taking a course in geology, and leaving my decent, caring, lovely wife. The rocks and saw and polishing tools were in the back of the van when I left, thanks be to god that they fell out somewhere.

What does reading in your youth lead to? What is it my mother had told me? I was susceptible to an imagination that could carry over into actions. In Mary Francis Strong I had read that there was something amiss in modern society, some spiritual plague had befallen the sons of man that inhabited the suburban gridlock—it might not be a bad idea to head for the hills. So I headed for the hills and when I came back from mine and hers imagined retreat, I got a load of my Uncle’s tailwind. Now I’ll think, on an occasion, of going rock hounding, but there are other people and lives to be lived and work to be done. I lost my copy of the Desert Gem Trails by Mary Francis Strong.

Mark Olson links:

Mark Olson's MySpace page

Popmatters review of The Salvation Blues
Harp review of The Salvation Blues

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Note Books submissions (musicians discuss literature)
Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)


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