Let’s hear it for those quietly impressive, hard-working sidemen and women. Every band needs one or two. Standing behind Jayhawks singer-songwriters Marc Olson and Gary Louris for most of the 1990s was the unfortunately named Karen Grotberg, with her catseye glasses and slightly bouffant hair, looking like a small-town librarian who hadn’t quite made it out of the eighties (in my head her speaking voice is like Marge Gunderson’s but perhaps I’m just playing with stereotypes now). On the cover of her first album with the group (Tomorrow the Green Grass), she’s pushed off to the side, sitting on her own branch of the tree, looking up rather than at the camera. She was a great country pianist, enlivening even the most pedestrian moments of their occasionally lumpy career, while singing fine harmonies too. When she left the band after the not-country-at-all Sound of Lies album from 1997, the group lost something key to its identity, for sure.
On their cover of the Harlan Howard/Billy Walker chestnut I’m Down to My Last Cigarette (recorded far less frequently than one might expect for a song that sounds ready-made to be a standard, but revived in the late eighties by KD Lang), Grotberg gets a rare lead vocal and has a ball with it. The track sounds like it might have been recorded live in the studio, although this audio-verite feeling is undercut by the decision to give her voice a Sun Records echo. But it’s still a great performance, fun and spontaneous-sounding, down to Grotberg having to cue in Louris for his solo.
The song appeared as a B-side to their 1995 cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s Bad Time, on which Grotberg was elbowed aside in favour of lungs-for-hire Sharleen Spiteri, odd-jobbing as a session singer around LA during Texas’s mid-nineties hiatus. Perhaps Grotberg was given this one by way of an apology. She ain’t Patsy Cline, but on this evidence (and that of a even more impressive recent live recording on YouTube) she’s a better singer than the nasal Olson and hoarse Louris, who on the evidence of the 2011 reunion album Mockingbird Time still haven’t learned to sing close harmony without lapsing into doubling each other’s notes. They still do this one at live shows, Karen getting her well-earned turn in the spotlight.
Karen Grotberg. © 2009, Steve Cohen