The leader of seminal Americana band The Jayhawks is back and better than ever after a dark time.
By Steve Houk
Back in the day, I remember always being so pumped when I’d get the very latest homemade cassette tape of new rock and roll from a buddy of mine, one of many I would get from him over the years. It was always great stuff from both old and new bands. On one of those tapes were some startlingly good songs from The Jayhawks, a Minnesota band with a stunningly memorable blend of Americana vibe, 70’s country rock feel, and yet something all their own. It resonated with me bigtime, and still does to this day.
Between 1985 and 2005, The Jayhawks would put out a host of truly exceptional records and garner a deep fan base, and in the years since the ’05 hiatus have survived time and turmoil to reunite in 2014 for a long awaited tour. If you don’t know who they are, well, check them out and you can thank me later. To find a weak moment on one of their albums would be a true challenge.
But it’s funny what happens to alot of great bands at the height of their rise. Jayhawks front man Gary Louris found that being tired of the daily grind can turn progress into quicksand pretty damn fast.
“We were kinda bored, burnt out, and yeah, I also missed a big part of my son’s life,” Louris told me on a tour stop in Indiana. “I mean, by 2005, we had been a band for 20 years, not too many bands do that. I felt like we were kinda stuck at a certain level, so we felt like we were ending at a good point, Rainy Day Music was our biggest selling record, and I wanted to do other things, I wanted to collaborate with other people, experiment with synthesizers and stupid fun stuff, and not just be Mr. Heartland.”
Since the beginning, Louris was the driving force behind the Jayhawks’ rise along with collaborator Marc Olson, and as is the challenge all prolific band leaders encounter after they’ve made it, he was trying to survive while not becoming an alt country nostalgia act.
“I was trying to be everything but The Jayhawks,” Louris said, “I just felt like, I don’t wanna be that guy, the last man standing in the band, trying to hang on ‘cuz I can’t do anything else, past their prime. I always didn’t want to do that.”
So Louris put his revered band on the shelf in ’05 and happily did some solo work, as well as collaborating with other great musicians like his old buddy Chris Robinson from The Black Crowes and country stars Nickel Creek. After a few scattered Jayhawks reunion shows over the next couple years with and without Olson, his on again-off again relationship with his old friend was back on, so in 2011 the two got The Jayhawks flying again, albeit briefly, and for the first time since they started the band, with only limited success creatively and commercially.
“We patched things up and did a duo record,” Louris said, “and then I started getting these reissues going because at that time our records were out of print, and I had been working on a Golden Smog “Best Of” [his excellent supergroup project with members of Soul Asylum, The Replacements, Wilco, Big Star and others) and realized there’s nothing like that for The Jayhawks. So between working on that, and with him, and having the reissues come out of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass, I talked Olson into touring a little, and then we thought, well, if we’re gonna go out, we should have a new record, which was kind of a mistake, it didn’t turn out very good. And then I got into trouble and went to rehab and I cleaned myself up.”
Louris’ culprit wasn’t hard drugs but pain pills, which he first got addicted to after heart-related surgery in 2003. Vicodin, Percoset, you name it, between the pills and the booze, it all started to take it’s toll, even affecting his once-exceptional playing. In 2012, he’d hit bottom and finally realized he needed help.
“It grew over the course of eight years,” Louris confides. “It was a kinda slow build, and then I was outta control, comparatively speaking. I hear people who took 30 pills a day, I was maybe taking 4 and then valium at night, it was a bitch. Thank God for rehab though, I was so f—ing ready. I was falling down backstage, and I was repeating songs onstage when I was on that last solo tour before I went in. I hid it pretty well, pills are easier to hide than drinking. That’s part of the charm of it. People around me noticed it maybe more than others, and there are people that see me now and say, ‘Wow, you’re different.'”
“But really, I was just trying to feel normal,” Louris continued, “I had alot of depression and insecurity, alot of self consciousness all my life. Then when I had an operation [after a 1988 car accident], they gave me pain pills and I thought, oh, I feel kinda normal now. And that’s usually how it starts. I wasn’t really trying to party, I was just trying to feel…OK. But it’s been two years yesterday from drinking and it’s been so great, I enjoy everything alot more.”
Louris’ rehab stint proved to be a major turning point in many ways for the gifted musician, so much so that the new found clarity has also helped him relax in his role as a Jayhawk and not try to keep running away from it.
“When I was sober and cleaned up,” Louris continued, “and I was restarting and re-embracing music, I kinda realized at some point that I have to embrace The Jayhawks instead of trying to run away. I’m always gonna be Mr. Jayhawk. And I actually started enjoying it with this lineup. Now I can find a place for it in my life. It’s never gonna be Jayhawks number one for me, but I think there’s a place where I can do it and love it. I think that opened up the gates where I said I actually like doing this, because it helps me do other things too, and then my life can be diverse.”
It’s lucky for fans of this great American band that Gary Louris is comfortable being back where he truly belongs, feeling better than ever and having fun again onstage with a Jayhawks lineup — sans Olson — that hasn’t played together since the end of the 20th century. And rescuing himself from his demons is something that’s given Louris a new lease on his life and his career.
“It’s so much better than it’s ever been for me, and it makes the show more fun,” Louris says with a likely smile. “I can engage the audience better and the band better, and I can remember the show. We’re laughing alot, playing some weird shit, just alot looser, so our show… it can be anything it wants. I’m just so relaxed onstage, like almost too relaxed, like, ‘Hey we gotta tighten it up! (laughs).’ But we’re not afraid to stop the show in the middle of a song, or laugh at each other. My eyes are open now, and I’m enjoying it.”