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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Midlife salvation

What's a guy to do when he's turning 45, finds his marriage coming apart and thinks he can't earn enough money anymore to make a decent living?

If he's a musician, he might go on a songwriting pilgrimage to search for a way out.

That's what Mark Olson did in 2006. He wandered through Wales, Norway and Poland, writing the songs that eventually became his first solo album, Salvation Blues.

Olson is best known as a founding member of the Jayhawks, the Minneapolis roots-rock band that formed in 1985. He was the Jayhawks' lead songwriter during the group's first decade.

Olson left the Jayhawks in 1995 to spend more time with his wife, singer Victoria Williams, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Together with Mike Russell, they formed the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers in 1997. He and Williams divorced in 2005.

"I wasn't sure I was going to do music anymore," Olson said during a phone interview last week. "I went back to school and enrolled in a one-year program to become an EMT."

"But I was also living with depression at that time, and I thought to myself, 'This isn't the kind of job you do when you're feeling weak - it's a job you do when you're very strong.'"

Salvation Blues is soothing folk-rock, musical elixir for emotional pain. Songs like "Clifton Bridge" use gentle guitar chords to turn sadness into hope. The chorus brims with optimism:

Some people come here to die
We came here to live
There's a hope in our heart
There's a future in our soul

Olson says he never could have written Salvation Blues if it weren't for a Cardiff, Wales couple who took him under their wing at a time when he was down and out. That couple are novelist John Williams and his folk-musician wife, Charlotte Greig.

"They have this very organized workspace in the back of their house, and they get up early every day to write," says Olson. "It was just what I needed."

What's next for Olson?

He's returned to Joshua Tree, Calif., where his neighbors will include Victoria Williams.

"I lived there for 12 years and am going back to be among friends," he said. "I just bought an old house. It's a fixer-upper.

"I never saw myself as someone who could fix things, but I guess that's going to change."

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