The Jayhawk’s Rainy Day Music is, on the surface, a very good album by a very good band. That would be enough if the album did not represent something more for the band, and in particular for frontman/guitarist/songwriter Gary Louris. After 17 years in America’s once premier alt-country band, Louris has reached a new pinnacle in his songwriting craft. His warm, introspective songs are brimming with optimism. It is a refined, largely acoustic guitar-based record, garnering favorable comparisons to the likes of Fairport Convention, The Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and America.
There is nothing startling or earth-shattering about the songs on Rainy Day Music, and Louris says there is nothing wrong with that. “We were kind of thumbing our noses at the idea that you have to be new and hip and experimental to be cool,” he says.
Part of that mindset is in direct reaction to the band’s 2000 release of Smile, which featured percussion loops and some pretty hip sounding bells and whistles. But with Rainy Day Music the simple approach worked.
Tommorrow The Green Grass, the last album the band recorded with co-founder Marc Olsen before he departed in 1995, yielded the classic “Blue” and was the closest thing to real commercial success the Jayhawks had seen or experienced, but it also marked the end of the road of sorts. The departure of Olsen put Louris and the band at a critical crossroads.
Since the band’s inception in 1986, nearly every one of their original tunes carried an Olsen/Louris credit. In 1997, still reeling from Olsen’s departure and the breakup of his first marriage, Louris was free to write his own feelings of betrayal, loss and the fragility of life on 1997’s Sound of Lies.
Louris admits that those circumstances contributed to the more edgy, psychedelic-influenced Sound of Lies. The album starts with what could be seen as a veiled stab at Olsen in “The Man Who Loved Life,” (though the two remain friends) and ends with the title cut’s harsh realization of lost opportunity: “the sound of lies rings funny against the truth…” His lyrics explore the suicide pact of a pair of young lovers (“Think About It”), an accidental drowning (“Sixteen Down”), and the sometimes-cruel side of love (“Dying On The Vine” and “Stick In The Mud”). Louris even took ironic stabs at his own desire for fame on “Big Star.”
Sound of Lies was, for lack of a better way to define it, the least “Jayhawks” of the group’s now seven albums, but it neatly book-ended, as Louris wrote in the liner notes, the band’s first era.
“It didn’t sell a whole lot but a lot of people seem to have been impacted by it,” Louris says.
It is hard to imagine the neo-folk and pop sounds of Rainy Day Music – dripping with honey sweet harmonies and filled with evocative understated lyrics – are the same band that made Sound of Lies, a record of raging fuzz guitars, push-pull dynamics, and a moodiness that at the time did not sit well with some fans. But the dichotomy of Rainy Day Music’s domestic bliss and Sound of Lies’ teeth-gnashing uncertainty makes total sense when one understands the path Louris’ craft and career have taken.
“When I first started writing I was into a lot of British rock, particularly the Kinks,” Louris says. “Ray Davies of the Kinks, who wrote “You Really Got Me” and “Waterloo Sunset,” should not be underestimated as a serious tunesmith.”
To this day critic’s remark at how “British” many of Louris’ tunes sound. “I can’t get away from it. No matter how hard I try, I’m never going to be Townes Van Zandt,” he says with a laugh. “Then at one point I heard Elvis’ Sun Sessions album, and I veered away into the American thing,” he recalls. “I started listening to a lot of bluegrass and country, stuff that I had never been aware of before. I certainly hadn’t cut my teeth on it, so it was completely new to me.”
Louris played for several years after graduating from college in 1977 in the Brit-rock group Schnauzer, before joining a rockabilly group called Safety Last. Three years later, after catching the Jayhawks’ first show in Minneapolis, Minn., Louris convinced Olsen to let him take over lead guitar duties.
After a couple independent releases, the band came to the attention of Def American partner George Drakoulias, who released their breakthrough Hollywood Town Hall in 1992. Though it was an album deemed an essential recording of the 1990’s by Rolling Ston and yielded the No Depression anthem “Waiting For The Sun,” it actually proved the end of the group’s purely country-rock sound. The 1995 follow-up, Tomorrow The Green Grass featured a more lush pop approach evidenced by the soaring harmonies and Paul Buckmaster’s charted strings of “Blue.”
When Olsen left the group it not only gave Louris more room to write, but gave members (bassist) Marc Perlman and (drummer) Tim O’Reagan a chance to contribute more frequently as well. The band discussed calling it quits for “really only about two weeks,” Louris recalled. It then ballooned to six members, with guitarist Kraig Johnson and violinist Jessy Greene (of Geraldine Fibbers) joining the band on the road, partly out of Louris’ own admitted insecurities. Louris was now on his own and didn’t have to share songwriting space as before, when he and Olsen wrote five songs a piece for each album project. Out of 14 songs on Rainy Day Music, Louris wrote or co-wrote 11. On the previous two albums, his name was on every song.
Though the song on the group’s earlier albums credit both Louris and Olsen, the partnership was more along the lines of a Lennon/McCartney comvination than an equal work-share. One writer provided what amounted to most of the tune, the other simply offering criticism or finishing an idea. Whoever wrote it usually sang it, with Olsen’s clipped, dry twang countering Louris’ soulful, meandering tenor.
“It just seemed more fair that way,” recalls Louris of their methods. “Occasionally we did sit down and write a song together from the beginning, but mostly it was one guy helping the other finish something. I do miss it sometimes, working with a partner, not having someone to bounce ideas off of.”
Since then, he has collaborated with Perlman, producer Bob Ezrin and the odd outsider, but has largely gone it alone. Without Olsen’s more rootsy grounding, Louris’ songs immediately stood out on their own. Using deliberate, simple, but always unique vocal melodies, poppy hooks and earnest singing he was able to transform the group’s hallmark sound without totally abandoning its past identity. Smile reflected Louris’ new-found confidence and his happiness with his new wife and their son.
Louris admits he is not a very prolific writer. Instead of sticking to a regular regimen of composition, he is more of a collector – scenes, images, phrases, faint wisps of melody that come together only when the song reveals itself, or deadlines demand it.
“I collect a million ideas. Anything that sounds good I try to get down in the moment of inspiration. I never finish anything until I have to. Then what is good gets finished.”
It’s a method that suits him well. “Sometimes what would make two or three songs ends up distilling into one really good one,” he says. Consequently, one would be hard-pressed to find a dud among his tunes. The Jayhawks may not sell millions of albums, but they have not made one that finds people skipping many songs.
If Louris had it his way, the Jayhawks would be putting out an album a year, and his output would be much more copious. “I think the quality is better that way, because your creative juices are always flowing, and you are more motivated to get things down,” he says. “If you know you’re not going to make another album for two or three years, it’s kind of hard to force yourself to write regularly.”
It’s a frustration that Louris is understandably miffed about after more than 25 years in the business. At 47, Louris and the Jayhawks only have seven albums to their credit.
“We wrote this album (Rainy Day Music) in 2001 and 2001, recorded it in June and July 2002, and here it is a year later and we’re out promoting it,” he says. “Most bands would be on to the next thing by now. Unless you are a band that sells tons of records and says, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’ you kind of have to deal with it.”