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God's country

Mark Olson and Victoria Williams find shelter under Joshua Tree's open sky



Los Angeles is less than three hours by car, but Joshua Tree, Calif., home to former Jayhawks frontman Mark Olson and his folkie crooner wife Victoria Williams, is a million miles in spirit from the big-city music industry hub.

An arid, mountainous region dotted with its spiny namesake hardwoods, Joshua Tree is most famous (in pop music circles, at least) for the U2 record of the same name, and for the stark, beautiful landscape captured on the album cover by photographer Anton Corbijn. In Corbijn's photo, the band's blurred faces fade helplessly into the spectacular myriad of grays that are Joshua Tree's seas of sand, jagged ridges and patches of wiry sagebrush.

Joshua Tree's second biggest music-related claim to fame -- one of more direct relevance to this story, perhaps -- is as the place where alt-country godfather Gram Parsons' body was cremated, per his own request. But while Joshua Tree may hold a place in rock mythology, it's never been much of a mecca for actual music making. Maybe that's why Olson and Williams feel so at home living and recording there.

Imagining the laid-back couple at home in their desert abode is easy: Mark, with his mop of locks tucked under a funny hat, and Vic, with her big brown eyes and joyful, toothy grin, might spend their days gardening or lounging about in comfy jeans and wrinkled shirts -- guitars, scruffy pets, empty cereal bowls and religious folk art surrounding them. Outside their living room window rages the dusty majesty of the desert, while across the yard, their fancy garage-turned-recording studio emits the sounds of a funky country-gospel ditty from its speakers.

Given the prickly and poignant songs Olson and Williams are prone to write, Joshua Tree seems like the perfect place for this unflappable pair of characters. As Mark Olson and the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, the two, along with a few musician friends, have just released My Own Jo Ellen -- a homespun, country-infused collection of tunes about their life together. For the most part, Olson and Williams have arrived at a pleasant, breezy, family-sitting-on-the-porch kind of sound. Yet getting to that happy patio in Joshua Tree was no short or easy journey for either.

As a member of Minneapolis band the Jayhawks, Olson helped lead the early '90s alt-country revolution with his band's radio-friendly mix of country, rock, gospel and folk. Olson had hoped to bridge the gap between genres, while his Jayhawks partner Gary Louris had a penchant for more mainstream, pop-influenced songs. After three critically-acclaimed albums Olson left the band to pursue the music closest to his heart.

"Country's what kind of got me going, got me into music," Olson explains, on the phone from his and Williams' remodeled house. "My attempts to do country in the Jayhawks never came off."

Since leaving the band in 1995, Olson has received critical acclaim for his Creek Dippers work, but, without major-label support, has yet to equal the Jayhawks' recognition or album sales. He has a deal with HighTone Records now, but peddled the first few Creek Dippers records over the Internet. Still, Olson claims, he's happy to be at home, writing and recording with his wife.

"I don't miss any of that stuff -- as far as the [Jayhawks] identity goes," he says. "With the Creek Dippers, we're still pulling it together as we go along, and that's what makes it more interesting."

My Own Jo Ellen (named for Olson's late grandmother) often feels pulled together, though the pure joy of Olson and Williams' vocal harmonies excuses the album's unfinished veneer. The Olson/Williams blend has been compared, in fact, to the harmonizing of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, which greatly flatters Olson.

"It kinda works well," he says. "We sing together every night, and when you sing together all the time, you tend to learn to blend." Singing together is one of the things Olson and Williams enjoy most about their solitude in Joshua Tree.

"The isolation is great," Williams says, after picking up the second phone extension. "You don't have city problems like traffic. That's kinda why I came out here, so I can write."

If writing songs in the city proved increasingly difficult for the wobbly-voiced singer (an L.A. transplant who grew up in Louisiana), the traffic wasn't her only problem. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992, Williams' career as an eclectic, folk-pop singer was briefly derailed as she faced staggering medical bills and symptoms -- including numbness in her hands and feet that made playing guitar and performing difficult.

Financial help came when a group of fellow musicians (Lou Reed, Pearl Jam, Soul Asylum and others) recorded a tribute album of her songs to help her pay mounting medical bills. That album, 1993's Sweet Relief, became one of the most popular tribute albums of the '90s and launched a charity fund for musicians without health insurance that operates to this day. And as Williams continues to grapple with the disease, she has never stopped producing her quirky, spiritually-inspired albums.

Although they'd met in the 1980s, when she was married to first husband Peter Case, also a singer/songwriter, it wasn't until 1993 that Williams married Olson. Around that same time, she began recording her best-known album, Loose. In the wake of her diagnosis, a "who's who" of musicians turned up to help out on the album: R.E.M.'s Mike Mills and Peter Buck, Beach Boys arranger Van Dyke Parks, the Tower of Power Horns. Those triumphant sessions yielded her version of "What a Wonderful World" and widely established her as a keen interpreter of mid-century standards. She later recorded "Water to Drink" and "Young at Heart" for last year's Water to Drink.

Although she's officially taking a back seat to Olson for their current recording and touring as the Creek Dippers, a few Williams-style standards are always in the mix. And Olson is quick to admit Williams has a magical effect on audiences -- a star presence he can't compete with. "Vic has the spotlight," he laughs. "There's no way I'm ever going to steal away the spotlight from her."

For Williams, touring both exacerbates and eases the symptoms of her MS. "Being on the road is hard," she says, "but playing is very therapeutic."

Also soothing is Williams and Olson's simple Joshua Tree lifestyle. Olson's songs, whether about a farmer trying to save his land ("Ben Johnson's Creek"), a best friend to rely on ("Someone to Talk With") or an inspirational grandmother ("My Own Jo Ellen"), seem to naturally evolve from the stress-free setting of the couple's home and studio.

But Olson and Williams won't chalk it up to location alone. A spiritual bond between the two guides their music. While Olson commonly references religious imagery in his songs, Williams adds that the spiritual side "comes naturally" to her. Love keeps Williams strong in the face of her condition, but making music and faith are her true elixirs. "With me, the spiritual thing is kind of a given," she says. "Because I know from whence my help comes."

Without it, Williams says, "I pretty much can't do anything."

The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers, featuring Mark Olson and Victoria Williams, perform at the Variety Playhouse, Sat., Feb. 3. Show time is 8:30 p.m.. Tickets are $15, available through Ticketmaster. For more information, call 404-524-7354.

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