Gary Louris: Meandering To The Morning

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

Gary Louris by Darren Ankenman
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 Robinson
“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.”

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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.

Gary Louris

Image of Gary Louris by Darren Ankenman

Wrestling Water

Strip it down to what you can believe in
Pass it on, what is right and true blue

Louris & Olson from Reveille Magazine
Robinson and other musicians I’ve spoken to about Louris refer to him as a craftsman. That specific word has come up more than once in conversations, and it speaks to something wonderfully put together about Louris’ music and how he puts it across.

“I certainly think of it as a craft. For me, it has to be inspired first but to finish things off you need to roll up your sleeves and do the hard nuts and bolts work of polishing it off without ever overworking it. I tend to go with my first impressions, though with [Vagabonds], more than ever, I worked extra hard writing that extra verse or maybe not singing the same chorus each time, really pushing myself,” says Louris.

“Around the Smile period [the 2000 Jayhawks release], I remember Bob Ezrin [famed producer best known for helming Pink Floyd’s The Wall] accused me of being an inspired writer. I said, ‘Thank you,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I don’t really mean that as a compliment. You write when you’re inspired but you don’t tend to do the hard workmanship to finish it.’ Bob and I are friends and he’s a fan but there’s times I can be lazy,” continues Louris. “Going down to Nashville I’ve seen where people view it much more as a craft. I think I have a natural feeling towards what feels balanced. To me it always seems so obvious but working with a lot of people I’ve found that maybe this is a talent I have that most people don’t. I pick up on when something’s been going on too long or the balance of the bridge or whether you even need a bridge, those kind of things. Where I got it from I don’t know. Maybe it’s my architecture background [laughs].”

“What makes Gary unique is his relation to craft,” says Robinson. “You have to be able to do that more on-the-fly than in the past. You don’t have eight weeks to make a record; you have three weeks to make a record. Working with Mark and Gary on their record set the stage to work on [Vagabonds]. Gary and I have been friends for a long time. He’s adventurous, and he has his expression of what he wants things to be, true to who he is, which is different to his other collaborations. In that sense, I was thrilled he called me to facilitate that.”

“The other main difference from Mark and Gary’s record, where we went out to the desert to a little hotel for two nights to work out the tunes and then cut the record in 10 days, was for this we spent 10 days in pre-production, where we really sat down with the band,” adds Robinson. “In music you have to go with how you feel. Some of these songs are very complicated and we wanted to make sure once we got in the studio everyone was on the same page. There’s intricate parts and a lot of layering, and I think the pre-production really solidified everyone’s role and the dynamic really well.”

So Beautiful

Tortuous though it seems
Pouring forth bittersweet
Wrestling with the good and evil
In ourselves, within our struggle
I want to laugh, but do I dare?
I never had a cross to bear

Gary Louris
Louris’ voice is front and center throughout. When there are other vocals they’re true backing vocals, and after years of hearing Louris entwined in harmony with another singer, notably Olson in The Jayhawks, this is a true breath of fresh air. Without hyperbole, Louris has one of the great voices to emerge in the past quarter century – wounded yet upright, powerful in its softness, a honey touched tuning fork for the soul.

“If there’s ever been an issue that people had in the past, especially live, is they couldn’t hear enough of my voice. I don’t have a loud voice, so it made sense to go for a quieter approach and have background people be truly background. I guess that’s a real difference between this record and a Jayhawks record, though at times I thought I was a little too loud [laughs]. But every time we tried mixes with the vocal down you couldn’t hear the words as much and these songs really rely heavily on the words. So, we went with the loud vocal. Personally, I like records where you can’t hear the vocals that much,” laughs Louris.

“Another thing that really spurred the type of record I wanted to make and how I sang and how the songs were written came a bit out of this new love affair with folk music and fingerpicking such as Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Jackson C. Frank,” observes Louris. “I found that when I was playing with Olson we started doing that. Our forthcoming record has a lot of that on it. It was something I’d never really worked on and it’s very hypnotic. When you pick the guitar like that it tends to lead you into these wordy, jaunty, lilting kind of melodies. It’s not so much about the high singing style. I think that was a big thing for me to do.”

“Another discovery I made was doing Rainy Day Music [The Jayhawks’ last studio album from 2003] with Ethan Johns [Ray LaMontagne, Kings of Leon]. He really encouraged me to sing live, to go for the keeper vocal and guitar. It was kind of eye opening to me,” says Louris. “You sing around your guitar playing and you play guitar around your voice. There’s a natural ebb and flow, a natural dynamic that doesn’t happen when you overdub. You can’t help it, when you overdub that guitar you’re going to try and make it as steady and perfect as you can. When you sing you try to sing the best you can each note, but you lose the natural ebb and flow when you separate them.”

The Laurel Canyon Family Choir is Louris’ free love street choir on Vagabonds and includes Robinson, Susanna Hoffs [The Bangles], Johnathan Rice, Jenny Lewis, The Chapin Sisters, Andy Cabic [Vetiver], Farmer Dave [Beachwood Sparks] and Jonathan Wilson.

“It was really super fun, man,” enthuses Robinson. “It just opens up friendships, too, like I went and sang on Lewis’ record with Rice and everybody. It’s nice to be in a communal vibe with people you think are really talented and really sweet. I want to do a whole Susanna Hoffs record. I was trying to talk her into it last year when we were doing [Vagabonds], ‘Come on, let’s do a real folk record!'”

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Chris [Robinson] 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.

Gary Louris

Image of Chris Robinson by Jay Blakesberg

Branches Bearing Fruit

Besides his own work, Louris has begun producing others in recent years, including The Sadies‘s New Season, Limbeck‘s Let Me Come Home and Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion‘s Exploration.

“With production I feel a little bit like I’m pulling the wool over people’s eyes, but I guess that’s what all producers do [laughs]. They are there in a positive position to give full attention to the artist and focus things so you can succeed,” says Louris. “I don’t have any elaborate microphone techniques or anything. I have picked up a few things from watching engineers, and the smartest thing a producer can do is get a really really good engineer.”

Gary Louris by Darren Ankenman
“I’ve made enough records to know what I like AND to know to get engineers that are good and know what I’m talking about,” echoes Robinson. “I’m not a technical guy and I’m not gonna make technical records. People come to me looking for a certain vibe. I’m a song-oriented person and an arranger, and what I do well is work with the dynamic and help people explore that energy. But, you also need to make decisions and keep something pointed in a certain direction and keep that energy going, while not being commandeering so you lose the vibe. When people are comfortable and confident making records is kinda easy [laughs]. You want the best material, the best performance and the best sound. What I mean by that is what’s happening then and there during the session. Different things happen at different times. Maybe this will be the fashionable mode of making records again. Can you imagine? It’d be fucking hilarious. Like wow, it’d help if everyone could play their instruments and make connections between the emotional content they’re trying to portray and the music [laughs].”

Recently, Louris has put a tentative toe into the mainstream country world in Nashville. He played guitar on the Dixie Chicks‘ massive 2006 release, Taking The Long Way. It was Louris who suggested the Chicks take out former Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed on the Long Way world tour.

“I gave the Chicks his name. They asked me to do it and I told them, ‘I know a guy who’s a lot better guitar player than I am who’s gonna be able to go on the road, too.’ I suggested their drummer, too, kind of helped them out with their band,” says Louris. “I like working in Nashville. I have to keep at it. You’re not seeing my name all over the place. I go down there every few months but I need to be more diligent in building relationships.”

There’s tunes in Louris’ catalog that could conceivably be hit records for established country acts. A song like “Blue” from The Jayhawks much loved 1995 album, Tomorrow The Green Grass, seems custom built for some cowboy hat crooner to belt onto the charts. Nashville has just woken up to the riches in the Americana field in the past few years including Tim McGraw‘s Top 10 cover of Ryan Adams’ “When The Stars Go Blue.” The quality of Louris’ compositions harks back to the superior radio fare of the ’60s and ’70s, where one needn’t abandon quality simply to get airplay, and would be a welcome change from the crass commercialization that’s infected country.

“The Chicks did versions of ‘I’d Run Away’ and ‘All The Right Reasons’ when I was there. We had some time in the studio and they were interested. It was never going to be on the last record but there’s been talk of a covers record,” Louris says. “For one reason or another, my words are a little too vague or quirky for most country artists. We’ve had a little trouble finding people to cover Jayhawks songs but I don’t really know why. ‘Blue’ is one of those songs I’ve been told this person or that person was close to cutting but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Perhaps this hitch comes from the distinctive flavor of Louris’ music, both solo and in The Jayhawks. It’s a winning sound but also slightly elusive. Just ask anyone who’s tried to copy what he does. But, there are worse attributes than being distinctive.

“Years ago, Rick Rubin was asking me to find some songs for Johnny Cash to do, and I said, ‘Hey man, what about some of our songs [laughs]?’ I was told that Johnny liked them but they were too specifically us. They weren’t something he could slip into it, and that’s seems to be the common answer out there,” concludes Louris.

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