Songwriting can often be viewed as a solitary pursuit fueled by inspiration and necessity. For Gary Louris, founding member of the Jayhawks, it hasn’t necessarily been the case, be it within his band or as a kind of songsmith-for-hire.
It’s clearly reflected in his group’s latest outing, last year’s Back Roads and Abandoned Motels. With the exception of two new songs, Louris was the lone songwriter on nine of the 11 cuts. The remaining songs were remakes of tunes the Ohio native co-wrote with and for a number of artists, including the Dixie Chicks, Ari Hest, Jakob Dylan, Carrie Rodriguez, and Wild Feathers. Louris credits newest Jayhawks member John Jackson for the direction this latest project took.
“It was the idea of John Jackson, who we got to know when some of our records started getting reissued through Sony Legacy,” Louris explained in a recent phone interview. “He became a really great friend and was responsible for a lot of things, like hooking us up with Ray Davies and all these other things. John started out as a friend and somebody we worked with and it turned out that he’s a huge Jayhawks fan and a really good player who ended up sitting in with us whenever he could. He eventually became part of the band.
“He’d been looking to do something with us and he wanted to tell the world I was an underappreciated songwriter or something to that effect,” Louris said with a laugh. “We just compiled a bunch of songs and certain ones rose to the top. We decided to record them and put the Jayhawks stamp on them. When you write a song with an artist, they take it and do with it what they will. I have to say that I’m thrilled with everybody’s take on these songs. But sometimes, you want to do them your own way and have a little more control over things. So we didn’t vary too much from the original arrangements because they already had a good part of me in them already. Just by us doing them, they became Jayhawks songs.”
The result of this musical experiment makes it one of the band’s strongest records, no mean feat given the fact that the band has been knocking around since 1985. Back Roads opens with “Come Cryin’ To Me”, a cut from Dixie Chick Natalie Maines’ 2013 solo debut Mother, and features Jayhawk Karen Grotberg applying sensuous phrasing to this horn-kissed gem that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sheryl Crow album. Other highlights include “Gonna Be A Darkness”, a mandolin-soaked ballad sung by drummer Tim O’Reagan, originally co-written by Louris with Jakob Dylan for a True Blood soundtrack, and “Backwards Women”, a previously unreleased collaboration with Wild Feathers that has an early ‘70s Faces/Stones vibe. It’s one of Louris’ favorite songs on the album.
A pair of songs originally recorded by the Dixie Chicks– the harmony-enveloped “Everybody Knows” and the quasi-forlon “Bitter End”– also resonate with the kind of substance and heft fans have come to expect from the upper reaches of the Jayhawks’ back canon. Louris is quite pleased with the album, particularly given how the band has been cutting back on touring and focusing more on hitting the recording studio.
It’s a decision that’s also yielded opportunities for the Jayhawks to serve as a back-up band on studio projects by Kinks frontman and main songwriter Ray Davies and good friend Wesley Stace. For the latter, a good friend of Louris’, it was a chance for the band to stylistically stretch their legs on the 2017 outing dubbed Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding.
“I met Wes in the late ‘80s. We played some shows and he’s truly become one of my best friends. I’ve gone to visit his mum, we’ve hung out a lot and stayed in touch all the time. He’s a really talented guy, a great writer, novelist and an all-around, smart and great person to be around,” Louris said. “We had a lot of fun and did this real ‘70s soft rock thing in maybe two or three days in a rehearsal space in Minneapolis. We ended up having a lot of fun.”
The Jayhawks also played the same role for Davies on a pair of his solo albums, 2017’s Americana and last year’s sequel, Our Country: Americana Act II. Inspired by Davies’ 2013 book, Americana: The Kinks, The Riff, The Road: The Story, these outings found the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer looking for a group that could help translate his love affair with America and its culture. It was new Jayhawk Jackson who made the connection between Davies and his bandmate. It also was a dream come true for Louris, an avowed Kinks fan (“Ray is one of my heroes and somebody who I always admired since I was young. I was a huge Kinks fan and probably identified more with them than the Beatles or the Stones.”)
“[Ray] was looking for a group situation and didn’t want to get a bunch of different hotshot musicians to put in a room. He really wanted a band, and I think that he misses some of that camaraderie of the Kinks and I think he still is kind of a ‘band’ guy,” Louris recalled. “So John said the Jayhawks would be perfect and we were flown over from Spain to London for a couple of days to see if it would work. It became more like a getting-to-know-each-other kind of thing. It went well and he wanted to do more and more and we’ve become friends. Musically, it worked, especially with [Davies bandleader] Bill [Shanley] in there also. It was a great experience”
One of the upsides that came out of these sessions was greater involvement by the other Jayhawks, specifically Grotberg and the rhythm section. It’s a situation reflected on Back Roads, and one that Louris hopes will play out when the band hits the studio again.
“I think the model I would like to have for the next record is to open it up a little bit, as we have in the past, where people can write and bring in their own songs. I’d like to step back a little bit and have Karen and Tim [be represented more],” he said. “I want to see what they’ve got and we’ll try and collaborate if we can. If they have some songs, we’ll make it a little bit more of a collective than it’s been. Marc Perlman has written some of the best Jayhawks songs and co-written some of the best Jayhawks songs there are. Tim has shown that he can write great and I know that Karen has songs. So that’s what we’re hoping for.”