Music artists, like athletes, have to know when to leave the game. Stay too long and they risk tainting all their previous hard work and successes, forcing the highlights of their careers to live in the shadow of their creative declines. And for rock ‘n’ roll artists — artists in a young person’s genre — the chances of hanging around too long are extremely high. Gary Louris, the alt-country icon who has forged a solo career after leading the legendary Jayhawks for roughly two decades, is fully aware of this idea.
“As you get older, you feel like you’re better, but you feel like it’s a young person’s game in many ways. I mean, it certainly helps to be young, female, 22, and blonde to sell records than it is to be a 53-year-old guy.”
Thankfully, Louris need not worry about this. His music with the Jayhawks was always more than pop-rock, its roots digging deep into soul, country, and folk. Even a touch of gospel could be found in the harmonies, the kind that, like those other genres, emerged from the humid haze of the hot South. It’s just this brand of rock — the kind produced by artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young — that wears well with time.
No, if there’s a tragedy to be attached to Louris’ career, it’s not that he hung around too long. Rather, it’s that he left a storied part of his career unfinished. Then again, it really wasn’t his decision. For ten years in the Jayhawks, from 1985 to 1995, Louris was one-half of a singing/songwriting team that produced some of the best alt-country music of the decade. Just when the band was poised to break through into the mainstream with their classic album Tomorrow the Green Grass, the other half of that team, Mark Olson, left the ranks.
“He left in ’95,” Louris recalls, “and it wasn’t because we didn’t have musical ideas. It was because we had too many and…”
Louris pauses here, his voice becoming strained. Creative demises are always tough to explain with any clarity when you’re one of the players, and Louris, perhaps, is trying not to open any healed wounds. “And we had a lot of other factors that, kind of, caused him to leave,” he finally says, wisely avoiding the reasons altogether.
After Olson’s exit from the band, Louris continued releasing albums with the Jayhawks until 2003. Through numerous lineup changes and forays into different genres, the band always came back to their roots rock foundation, using it as a jumping-off point rather than as a point of departure. Some of the post-Olson albums, such as 1997’s Sound of Lies, rank among the band’s best, proving that Louris could lead a band on his own.
And yet, even though all of the post-Olson Jayhawks albums are strong, listening to them always leaves the nagging sense that something is missing. That something, of course, is the inimitable blend of Louris and Olson’s voices, a blend so beautiful and rare that it’s usually only seen among siblings. The back cover of Tomorrow the Green Grass describes that blend perfectly when it refers to it as “the gene-spliced brotherhood of the highway that happens when hauling ass to one night stands”. You couldn’t explain it in a more apt — or mythic — manner.
“From the very first start the tone of our voices sounded good,” Olson explains. “I have a little lower and he has a little higher voice. He’s a very good high harmony singer, and I hope that I’m good at the low harmonies, you know what I mean? It’s two different ways of doing it. The low guy just moves a little bit, and the high guy moves more.”
“Somehow, we each fill each other’s weaknesses in,” Louris says, “and create what some people call the uni-voice. The sum is greater than the parts.”
While Louris carried on the Jayhawks, Olson was busy releasing albums with his new band, the Creekdippers, with his then-wife, Victoria Williams. As time carried on, however, the lure of a creative reunion made more sense. By 2004, both the Jayhawks and the Creekdippers had put out their last albums of original material to date.
The reunion eventually became a reality in 2005 when the two finally teamed up once again to tour. “We did two tours,” recalls Olson. “One on the east coast with a couple of guys and then one on the west coast with just him and I, and it was really, really fun.” While the two recorded and released solo albums during this time, the tours reminded them of the unexplainable magic that occurs when they write and play together.
“We decided,” Olson adds, “let’s do this again, but it makes a lot of sense, if we’re going to do it again, to have a new record out.”
Louris concurs with Olson’s account of things, but there was an additional concern for him: the fear of being viewed as a musician simply reliving the glory days. “You know,” he says, “once we started playing some shows we said, ‘Well, geez, this is nice, but kind of strictly a nostalgia act. We still write songs.’ We’re a songwriting team, so we wrote more songs, and when you write songs you want to record them.”
The resulting album, Ready for the Flood, sees Louris and Olson renewing their signature sound while also elaborating on it. While the music of the Jayhawks often saw the two channeling folk, country, and blues, then filtering those genres into rock, Ready for the Flood develops those influences more directly. Unfettered and inspired, the album is moving in both its simplicity and beauty. This, in large part, is because the two dig deep into the roots of American music in each song.
“At some point in my life,” says Louris, “I really saw the depth of soul music and blues and country that just added an extra layer to the importance of a song. As much as I love the Clash and bands like that — or pop bands — I always find myself feeling that a song is more important if it has a little bit of soul in there. And soul, to me, represents blues, soul, country, folk — something that isn’t a flavor of the month but has a timeless connection with the earth and people’s lives, whether they’re surrounded by computers or working in the mine.”
Neither of them, according to Olson, planned the songwriting process too much. Instead, the pair shut out the world and just did what they do best: tap into the creative energy that each brings out in the other. “There was a little period of time when he was in Minnesota and I had a couple of weeks off so I called him up and said, ‘Hey, why don’t I come up?’ You know, we didn’t really plan it very far out. [It was] like, ‘You know, I’ll come up, and we’ll write some songs.’ And that’s what we did. We spent like four or five days just working on some songs.”
“I think it’s undeniable,” Louris says, referring to the chemistry between him and Olson. “There are some things that just happen and are not forced, and with Mark and I, it’s just that way.”
To make sure their excitement about being back together in the studio again didn’t supersede their judgment, the two brought in Chris Robinson to serve as the producer. And while some producers are notorious for micromanaging a project, as Louris and Olson explain it, Robinson was more an objective and knowledgeable collaborator than a creative svengali.
Louris concedes that he and Olson were in no place to be objective about their new work. “We wanted to be in the studio, we hadn’t worked together in a long time, and it was kind of a heavy, emotional session. We knew we wanted someone there to help us sort through stuff, because we can certainly fall into the doubting, insecure mode. I think both of us feel that we’re either the shit or we’re shit. You know, it’s hard to tell. There’s no way to tell. Depending on the moment you feel like, ‘Wow, this is the greatest or this is horrible.’ So we needed somebody that we trusted who was our friend.”
“[Chris] was good on keeping after certain songs,” says Olson. “He was definitely the lead guy on which song was the take. I have a tendency to feel that if we’re not getting it on the third or fourth take that there must be something amiss. And he kept after [the songs].”
The fact that Louris and Olson are putting out a new album — and that the fact that it’s damn good — is certainly great news for Jayhawks fans. Yet, for the faithful, there’s always the desire to see the two fronting the Jayhawks once again. There is some hope, albeit slight, that that will happen.
While Louris asserts that the Jayhawks are “technically not” together anymore, he does note that the band will play a show — with Olson back in the fold — in Spain on September 6th. “They wanted the Tomorrow the Green Grass lineup, so it’s going to be Tim [O’Reagan], Karen [Grotberg], Olson, me, and [Marc] Perlman. We’re just going to play this festival … We’re playing there, and that’s it.”
Still, neither artist is going into the show with the intent of a Jayhawks reunion. Louris, though, sounds slightly more receptive to the idea. Though he doesn’t confess any hopes, his voice shifts to a noticeably higher register — the kind reserved for guarded optimism — when asked about the possibility. “You know, we’ll just see how much fun we have,” he says, then, as if realizing he better not make plans for anyone else, jokingly adds, “and how bad everyone needs money, I guess.”
Olson, for his part, sounds averse to the idea, not because he doesn’t miss the band, but because of all the details involved with being in a full-fledged touring unit. “I don’t like the logistics of a band. I just don’t. I don’t like the trucks, and the drum carrying, and the amps … the whole thing. It seems too much to me. It’s like you’re going to play music and then all of a sudden you have this logistical thing. It just isn’t something I like. Sorry. I came to it some time during the Tom Petty tour when they had five buses and six trucks. To me, it’s gross. It’s too much. So I’ve kind of taken a personal stance about that. But it’s just my own person. It doesn’t matter to anyone else.”
And while that may sound pessimistic, Olson doesn’t completely rule it out. “The basic thing,” he says, “is that Gary and I are going to do a tour of [Ready for the Flood], and that includes Europe. And then next spring, I guess, we’ll figure things like [getting the Jayhawks back together] out.”
Whatever happens, both Louris and Olson feel that, in the end, the extended creative break was good for both of them — both in terms of their art and their overall friendship. “I think there’s just a greater appreciation of each other,” says Louris. “I think we always respected and really liked each other. Now, after it was kind of lost and then regained, there’s more of an appreciation in realizing how special it is.”
The whole reunion, to be sure, is reminiscent of the Jayhawks’ song, “Blue”, the opening track from Tomorrow the Green Grass. In the song, the lyrics talk about missing somebody special, and how — no matter how hard you try — there’s no filling the voids left by the absence of that person. “It’s hard to sing with someone,” the lyrics go, “Who won’t sing with you … I never thought that I’d miss you / That I’d miss you so much.”
“When I sing that on my own,” Louris says, “I think of Mark a little bit.”
Fortunately, after so many years and life changes, neither Louris nor Olson have to sing without the other. And for those who have waited for over thirteen years to hear the duo record new material, they can rest assured that the two are just now reaching their creative peak.
“Our music has a little more connection with the blues and folk tradition,” Louris says. “It’s the kind of music that I’ve always felt you could grow older gracefully [playing]. It almost improves.”
Thankfully, in music, unlike sports, it’s never too late to get back in the game when your appeal is timeless.