By: Dennis Cook
Shifting stages and shapes
Giving up ground now, taking another's place
Holding one's own
As if you were just born
When folks are rattling off the granddaddies of what's become known as Americana one name that's often conspicuously absent is The Jayhawks. Emerging from Minnesota in the mid-80s, they conjured music with both twang and irrepressible grandeur; the big and the small swirled in tales that shot straight to the heart. While critics and fans alike cite Uncle Tupelo (who gave birth to Wilco and Son Volt) with Americana's genesis, dollars to donuts just as many acolytes like Ryan Adams and The Felice Brothers wore out copies of The Jayhawks' Hollywood Town Hall (1992) and Tomorrow The Green Grass (1995).
The central figure in this under-sung band is Gary Louris, a songwriter of off-handed brilliance, tossing out chestnuts that get one through the day, especially the hard stretches where hope hides in the weeds and the milk-and-honey times seem long gone. His wrangling of the imperfect tool of the English language slices down to real things, never hiding the sores and scars but also seeing the beauty right in front of us that we might otherwise miss. After more than 20 years on the job, Louris has finally gotten around to his long awaited solo debut, Vagabonds (released February 19 by Rykodisc), produced by Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes. Vagabonds is a serious grower, layered and stretched in lovely, inviting ways. From the delicious strum of acoustic guitar that blossoms into barroom piano and bouncing drums on opener "True Blue" on through the brightly meditative swoon of closer "Meandering," the album sighs and breaths with real life punctured by poetic insight and sympathetic musicianship.
"It's funny the way records go. A large portion of my body of work I thought for sure was going to make the record - including one song called 'Baby, Let Me Take Care Of You,' which I thought was going to be the centerpiece of the record – ended up not being on there. 'Baby, Let Me Take Care Of You' ended up being a b-side but certain things just muscled up to the top," says Louris. "Even at my age, as a senior roots rockin' statesman, I still haven't explored the alternate tunings I want to do and things like that. There's still so much more I want to do."
"Looking back at it now, it seems to be a conscious decision to make something introspective and low-key and quiet but at the time I thought we were just picking the best songs we had that fit together the best. It was not intentional," continues Louris. "The only thing that was intentional was to make a record that featured my voice in the songs. It ended up growing into a little bigger production than was originally envisioned, which was going to be a man-and-his-guitar kind of record because I'd never really done that. But, as the band played on...[laughs]."
And what a band it is. Robinson handpicked some of the brightest wildflowers in the Laurel Canyon region of Southern California. Backing Louris' consistently stirring voice and guitar are Adam MacDougal (keys), Josh Grange (pedal steel), Otto Hauser (drums, percussion) and Jonathan Wilson (bass, guitar, organ, banjo).
"People said, 'You know all these musicians [from] over the years. Why didn't you pick bigger names?' What they were suggesting was exactly what I didn't want to do - pluck a bunch of different people from different sessions and throw them in the room together. I wanted a band with a sort of musical vocabulary amongst them immediately," says Louris.
"I put a smaller kind of thing together for Mark and Gary's record [a duo album from Louris and old Jayhawks sparring partner Mark Olson, also produced by Robinson, due this fall], and just talking to Gary and conceptualizing a rough target of what [his solo album] would be, I wanted to make a few changes. For this record, I thought Otto from Vetiver would be the perfect drummer. Jonathan Wilson was going to play lead guitar but George Reiff [New Earth Mud] had a family crisis and had to pull out so Jonathan went to bass," explains Robinson. "Gary had sent me so many songs. He had a lot of music, finished things and others in production-al disarray. I felt we needed something a bit more sonic, a bigger ensemble on Gary's record. It was also my first chance to work with Adam [now the keyboardist in The Black Crowes] and Josh Grange [Dwight Yoakam, Chris and Thomas, Tony Gilkyson]."
"Chris is a good friend of Jonathan's and knew about these jam sessions he held every Wednesday night up in Laurel Canyon. It made sense to Chris to mine that particular vein for musicians," adds Louris. "It worked well from the first note. There was an indefinable chemistry in how the notes collided, especially on the ethereal stuff. The pedal steel and the keyboards, in particular, created this ethereal backdrop that I really liked. We hadn't planned that at all. It was just players playing off of each other."
You hear that beautiful haze on the soaring, atmospheric "I Wanna Get High," which breaks new ground for Louris.
"I'd like to capture that a little bit more. That's the closest I came to doing a little Skip Spence [Moby Grape] kind of action," Louris says. "That song was originally more of a New Wave-y pumped up thing but during rehearsals Chris suggested the slow, heavy blues stomp thing. That made the song better."
Vagabonds was co-produced and engineered by the fabulous Thom Monahan, who's twiddled the dials and cut tape for Vetiver, The Pernice Brothers, Beachwood Sparks, Devendra Banhart and many others. Monahan has a way of stirring the best parts of a cut to the surface, balancing elements in a very warm, frankly magical way.
"That came from Chris. He was my guy, and he played me the Vetiver, Espers and Brightblack Morning Light records. He got me interested in Thom," says Louris. "Chris gets so damned excited. I don't think there's a bigger music fan, and it's all kinds of music. He has everything I don't have. He has confidence and he's high energy. I have confidence in myself but I can be a bit of a doubter and a sad sack and a second thought kind of guy. It's really great to have somebody there to pull you through the ruts."
As windblown and elemental as Vagabonds sounds, it's not just atmosphere. You can really hear the playing underneath the mood. It's the killer combination of people really doing something but also serving the overall texture. MacDougal, in particular, shines in unexpected outbursts like the tail section of "I Wanna Get High" where he bursts forth with an inspired Brubeck-esque "Take Five" tangent
"Oh yeah! We recorded everything super live, and Thom Monahan was super instrumental in getting that stuff. Thom and I are definitely chomping at the bit to do another project together," says Robinson. "He's a bit like Paul Stacey [producer of the Crowes' new Warpaint] in working a certain aesthetic that captures why we feel the way we do about records we love and musicians we respect and what we're trying to add in there. It's funny how time goes and there's a pretty good core group now that's into these ideals."
Continue reading for more on Gary Louris...