Gary Louris, leader of seminal Americana band The Jayhawks, is back after a dark time and better than ever.
Back in the day, I remember 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, ’70s country rock feel, and yet something all their own. It resonated with me and still does to this day.
Between 1985 and 2005 The Jayhawks put out a host of exceptional records and garnered a deep fan base. Since an ’05 hiatus, they’ve survived time and turmoil to reunite in 2014 for a long-awaited tour. If you don’t know who they are, check them out. You can thank me later. To find a weak moment on one of their albums would be a true challenge.
Funny what happens to lots 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. “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. But as it is with all prolific band leaders, he struggled 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.”
So Louris put his revered band on the shelf 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 with only limited creative and commercial success.
“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 a 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 four 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 a lot of depression and insecurity, a lot 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 a lot more.”
Louris’ rehab stint proved to be a major turning point in many ways, so much so that his new-found clarity also helped him relax in his role as a Jayhawk.
“When I was sober and cleaned up,” Louris said, “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 said. “I can engage the audience better and the band better, and I can remember the show. We’re laughing a lot, playing some weird shit, just a lot 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.”
The Jayhawks with special guest Trapper Schoepp perform October 24, 2014 at the 9:30 Club, 815 V Street NW, Washington, DC 20001. For tickets, click here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind as well as several other local rock ensembles.