By Mark Guarino
Going solo from a band that sold millions of albums is usually not wrought with difficulties as name recognition helps.
Yet for Gary Louris, the songwriter, singer and bedrock personality associated with The Jayhawks, things aren’t that simple. In their 17 years, The Jayhawks quietly released seven albums and groomed a dedicated following from its home quarters in Minneapolis, despite having just one song in the Top 40. The group’s entire catalog — starting with 1986’s “The Jayhawks” and continuing through 2003’s “Rainy Day Music” — stands the test of time for impeccable songcraft, sweetly-lined harmonies, a country-pop sound that often turned psychedelic, and lyrics that expressed bittersweet regret and solitary hope. In an era when grunge rock and later rap-metal melded personal unrest with volume and angst, The Jayhawks funneled despondence in more understated ways, through lilting melodies and crafty song structures.
They are elements continued on “Vagabonds” (Rykodisc), a newly released Louris solo album he worked on ever since disbanding The Jayhawks in 2005. Chris Robinson, the lead singer of The Black Crowes, produced the sessions, which expand the signature Jayhawks sound by branching into psychedelic folk music, the fingerpicking trance of English folk balladry and country gospel.
The assembly of California musicians transports the music into that city’s famed singer-songwriter scene of the early 1970’s (The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, Neil Young). Despite the passage of time, the music confidently stands up to that classic era, in part thanks to Louris’ high, lonesome vocals, which sound particularly suited to the music’s sweet but melancholic tone.
“I talk, not about pain, but the beauty of struggle,” he said. “Not so much the destination and road but the realization that life is filled with darkness and evil as much as it’s filled with beauty and happiness.”
Louris said working with Robinson, best known for the high-energy Southern rock and soul of The Black Crowes, was not far removed from his background. Robsinson recorded the sessions live, keeping things loose and capturing each performance as a specific moment in time.
“Chris and I have a lot more in common than people would assume. People should never judge a person by what they wear and what music they make,” he said. “I was a big punk rock guy and loved English punk rock way before I ever heard Gram Parsons. I loved art rock. But I just can’t play that type of music. It’s the same with Chris. He knows as much about (German avant garde composer Karlheinz) Stockhausen … as much as he does The Byrds and Moby Grape.”
Louris decided to abandon his former band’s name upon the release of “Rainy Day Music” after deciding he grew tired of playing to the same number of fans in each city, tour after tour. Since then he has maintained a home in Minneapolis and a house in the south of Spain, where he works on his own music, but has emerged as a songwriter, producer (The Sadies, Sara Lee Guthrie and Johnny Iron) and singer for hire. “Taking the Long Way,” the 2006 hit album and mega-Grammy earner by The Dixie Chicks, featured four of his songs.
But even with a debut solo album, Louris can’t remove himself from the legacy of The Jayhawks. He is concerned about mining the vaults to bring light to unreleased music and video, which includes reissuing the band’s debut album on CD for the first time. According to Louris, the process is tied up in the hands of industry impresario Rick Rubin who first signed the band to his label, American Recordings, but now is one of the most successful producers working today. Louris said Rubin’s priorities have made a reissue campaign difficult, compounded with the fact that he still holds the band under contract, making it difficult for them to seek another label.
“It’s very complicated. We weren’t a big band, but I think we were important in our own way. I see everyone under the sun with a box set or retrospective,” he said. “Part of it is Rick. He’s either there for you or
In the meantime, Louris plans to reunite with Jayhawks co-founder Mark Olson for a combined album due later this year. With Louris, Olson established the band’s harmony and roots-country sound, which helped influence a generation of bands in their wake. Olson left the band in 1995 and Louris’ decision to continue forward without him caused friction that took years to dispel. The pair will reunite for a combined tour later this year.
“Time healed some wounds,” Louris said. “At the end of the day we were such good friends and had such a good writing relationship … it just seemed like all those things that seemed so important didn’t fade away.”