Is there, perhaps, a distinction between stopping and ending? Maybe stopping is the absence — intentional or otherwise — of future plans to continue with what had been an ongoing concern. Ending feels more like a deliberate act calculated to ensure something ever happens again. Of course, a stop can turn out to be an end in hindsight. And not every ending pre-empts a sequel.
Gary Louris spent the last twenty or so years as leader or co-leader of the Jayhawks, one of the seminal bands of the roots-rock amalgam that passes for a genre and encompasses hundreds of artists covered and not covered by this very magazine. He did so first in partnership with Mark Olson, then on his own after Olson left the Jayhawks to start the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers with Victoria Williams. But it wasn’t quite that simple.
The Jayhawks version 1.0 ended in late 1995 with the completion of a long tour in support of Tomorrow The Green Grass and a meeting that followed between Olson and Louris to discuss the next record. That conversation ended with Olson saying he didn’t want to do it. After a bout of soul-searching, Louris (along with bandmates Mark Perlman, Tim O’Reagan and Karen Grotberg) elected to continue, and the Jayhawks version 2.0 was born with the release of 1997′s Sound Of Lies. The band thrived artistically (if not commercially) on through 2003′s Rainy Day Music.
Fast forward to 2008: The Jayhawks have stopped (see above); Louris is releasing his first-ever solo album, Vagabonds; and on the heels of that record will come Ready For The Flood, which reunites Olson and Louris as a duo and formally restarts, in terms of new writing and recording, what had ended (see also above) a decade ago.
By its very nature, analyzing why a band goes its separate ways is a delicate matter. Like personal relationships, there are multiple and sometimes contradictory points of view, not to mention an undeniable truth that none us know what the future holds. Louris seems conscious of all this as he addresses how the Jayhawks “stopped” (let’s continue to use that word) after the tour for Rainy Day Music.
“Well, depending on who you talk to, it was pretty mutual,” he explains. “It felt like we were spinning our wheels a bit, looking at this bizarre life for the rest of our existence. [I've since read] things from other people saying they wanted to continue, but at the time everybody [agreed], ‘Let’s put this to bed. We’ve been together twenty years.’
People still come up and say, ‘You gotta get back together.’ I won’t say that I don’t miss certain things about it, but there are tradeoffs. I remember back in the day talking to Joe Henry about the benefits — how it would be great to be a solo guy and do whatever you wanted any time with no responsibilities to anybody. And Joe was saying how great it would be to be in a band and know who your people were. So there are certainly positive and negative aspects. But I think we all felt we needed to do something different, even if it was just for the sake of doing something different.”
Save for a short, one-off set in celebration of the 35th anniversary of their hometown club, First Avenue, in 2005, the Jayhawks’ final performances took place at that same venue in Minneapolis in December 2003. The three-night stand was recorded and filmed for what was to be the band’s first DVD and live album, though four years later the project remains unseen and unheard.
“You’d think it was some kind of lost John Lennon album,” Louris says with exasperation, “because it has gone back and forth between Rick Rubin and Lost Highway.” The limbo is due to the Jayhawks’ catalogue reverting back to Rubin’s American imprint (to which the band inked its original major-label deal).
The quagmire is also holding back reissue of the Jayhawks’ self-titled 1986 debut, commonly known as the Bunkhouse album for the label on which it was released. “The live record, we’re working on,” he promises, “but I’m never going to open my mouth again until I know it is in stores. Same with the first record.”
Not the news Jayhawks fans were hoping to hear, but Louris does offer one tantalizing tidbit in terms of the vaults: “Rick Fuller [part of the filmmaking team of Harder/Fuller] has done a lot of rock documentaries, and he has all this footage of the history of First Avenue, plus a thing called Seven Nights At The Entry which I was involved with back in 1982 with all these bands playing. He’s given me a bunch of footage of the Jayhawks from 1986, ’88, ’90 and ’92. So there’s a lot of old film and video plus what we did for the live record in 2003. I’m hoping we can finally get some DVD footage out in association with the live album or the Bunkhouse album.”
The album title Vagabonds is fitting given the varied ways Louris contemplated making his first solo album, a process that eventually brought him to Los Angeles in the spring of 2006.
“I had four or five scenarios,” he recounts. “One was to do it in Spain with my friend Paco. We dabbled a bit but I felt a little isolated. Paco is incredibly talented and I’d like to do more work with him, but I was already a bit insecure about how these songs were going to pan out. So I discarded that idea and thought about doing all of it myself in my basement.”
He further considered working in England and even recording in Prague with a full symphony orchestra. “But I kept being pulled back to the idea of L.A.,” he says, “because I’ve made almost all my records there. You feel like you’re in the best place you could be: the best studios; the best support network; so much history.”
A big part of the L.A. support network was Louris’ good friend Chris Robinson, lead singer of the Black Crowes turned album producer. Robinson had helmed the Olson/Louris duo sessions (which were recorded before Vagabonds), and through that project, Louris says, “it became evident that I liked working with Chris and he put me in a good headspace.”