Photo by Vivian Johnson
The Jayhawks' "New Day": How The Americana Pioneers Overcame Decades Of Turbulence And Became Full Collaborators
The Jayhawks are generally seen as the rootsy, easygoing Minneapolis band that helped pioneer alt-country 35 years ago. But their leader Gary Louris hardly touches the stuff.
On his own time, the 65-year-old prefers to zone out to ambient drones by Cluster and Neu!; he's effusive about the hallucinogenic hard rockers Hawkwind. His bandmates, too, don't exclusively sit around listening to the Flying Burrito Brothers. Lately, keyboardist Karen Grotberg has been revisiting the French prog band Magma and German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. Bassist Marc Perlman cites R.E.M. as a major inspiration. Drummer Tim O'Reagan was partly reared on 1970s power-pop like Badfinger, Cheap Trick and Big Star.
These influences have bubbled up in their music since the 1990s. This has been something of a liability. "A strength of ours is that we’re hard to pin down. We’re eclectic. But it’s also been a hindrance," Louris tells GRAMMY.com. "I don't take it personally, but I feel like it's because we have a little too much of a British pop element that mixes in with the roots. Only in the 1980s — when I was 26 or 27 — did I discover American traditional music. That was added into what was already our DNA and that’s what makes us kind of in-between."
The Jayhawks exist in an awkward limbo — too rootsy for experimental rock fans, too left-field for those with a closetful of Western snap shirts. But that in-betweenness gives them longevity and range. The band has swerved between soothing Americana, morose pop, and art-rock meltdowns over the years, but their new album XOXO (out on July 10 via Sham/Thirty Tigers) marks their most profound shift to date.
For the first time ever, Grotberg, Perlman and O’Reagan, all who have been in the band for decades, contributed their own songs and sang lead vocals throughout a Jayhawks album. When Grotberg's "Ruby," Perlman’s "Down to the Farm" and O'Reagan's "Dogtown Days" ricochet off each other and Louris' contributions like "Living in a Bubble," the effect is of a songwriters' guild a la Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac.
To hear the Jayhawks tell it to GRAMMY.com, they're pleased by this development. "It's fun in a way that wasn't there before," O'Reagan says of the open format. "It gives some variety and depth." Perlman concurs: "It does help to get a band's interest and focus on recording to have them included from the writing stage through the production stage," he says. Most important, "I feel like I had equal opportunity to express myself and to have those expressions heard and respected," Grotberg explains. "Gary opened it up. Wide open."
But when the Jayhawks began, they were anything but.
The Jayhawks perform at The Greek Theatre on October 21, 1992 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Lindsay Brice/Getty Images)
Crowded In The Wings
The band was formed in 1985 in Minneapolis by Louris, Perlman, drummer Norm Rogers and their founding co-leader Mark Olson, who has since left the band twice. "Mark had the idea of putting the Jayhawks together because he had songs," Perlman says. "Good songs that he wanted certain musicians to flesh out for him." Their self-titled 1986 debut album and its 1989 follow-up Blue Earth were almost exclusively written by Olson, and on each, he and Louris honked together in ragged, gorgeous harmony.
The cocky pair's breakthrough came in 1992 via Hollywood Town Hall, which was released on Rick Rubin's fledgling label American Recordings. On that album, Louris emerged as Olson's co-writer and competitor. "There was a lot of blood spilled and sweat poured out and feet stepped on," Louris recalled to The Aquarian in 2011. "It was just our transition from being kind of a regional band to being internationally known."
"When we were younger, our edges were sharper," O’Reagan says. "Our egos were bigger."
Hollywood Town Hall featured Benmont Tench and Nicky Hopkins trading off on piano duties. When their mutual friend Mike Russell learned they needed an onstage keyboardist, he referred Grotberg, who lived around the corner from their frequent haunt the 400 Club and had seen the Jayhawks a number of times, She met up with the band at their rehearsal space and had one practice: "I guess it must have gone well, because I got the job!" she says.
But the spotlight unwaveringly remained on Louris and Olson. They got brasher and more ambitious on 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, dabbling in psychedelia and breaking into an exuberant cover of Grand Funk's "Bad Time." "I just remember us all kinda rubbing our hands together going 'I think we’re onto something here,'" Louris told The Aquarian of songs like "I'd Run Away"; "Miss Williams' Guitar" and "Blue," the only Jayhawks song that came within spitting distance of a hit.
"I think we pushed it a little bit more on that one," Louris added. But they might have pushed it over the edge altogether: that Halloween, Olson abruptly left the band.
The Jayhawks at Farm Aid in Ames, Iowa in 1993. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
Olson Leaves The Band
"It wasn’t a joyous ride, man!" Olson told Popmatters in 2011 of being a Jayhawk. "I'd been in the band for quite a while. I'd just got married [to singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, the namesake of 'Miss Williams' Guitar']. I found a house down in Joshua Tree. And I wanted to try something else with my life. I felt like we’d given it 100% on those two records, and we’d landed where we’d landed. And those guys wanted to go on, and I wanted to stop. And they went on."
Louris struggled in his new role as the band's leader. "A concern of Gary's was whether or not he could handle being the frontman himself," Perlman recalls. "He went and did it out of necessity. It’s like second nature to him now." Fearing the end of the band and hitting the bottle hard, Louris let his inner Anglophile take the controls, and he wrote a handful of rattled, despondent pop songs that became their 1997 masterpiece Sound of Lies.
"It is the f**k-you record. It really is the f**k-everybody record," Louris told San Francisco Bay Area Concerts in 2015. "I was going through a divorce, I was a mess, I was drinking too much, I was unhappy… I really felt this was the last Jayhawks record, and why not go out with a bang, so f**k it?" One line from opener "The Man Who Loved Life" predicts how the album would fare commercially: "The traveling band was not well-received."
Still, Olson's absence created a clearing in which the other members could flourish. O'Reagan, who replaced their third drummer Ken Callahan, wrote and sang "Bottomless Cup"; Perlman contributed “I Hear You Cry,” one of the album's B-sides. "I learned how to write songs by being in the Jayhawks," Perlman explains. "I didn’t really have any interest in it in any band I was in before. It kind of took me years to understand the concept of it."
Smile, their 2000 album helmed by star producer Bob Ezrin, was their shot at a full-bore pop record with co-writing credits from all Jayhawks. Sunnier than its predecessor while thrumming with slightly unhinged energy, Smile has aged terrifically, but the slickness of songs like its title track, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and “Queen of the World” came to some fans' chagrin. Louris was unmoved by the pushback: "I get bored easily… I don’t like doing cookie-cutter things," he plainly told Yahoo! in 2014. "I didn't want to blindly follow what we were supposed to do and play country-rock."
Which is ironic in light of its 2003 follow-up Rainy Day Music, which completely abandoned synths and drum machines and took shelter in Americana. "People say that it's a return to our original sound, but sometimes I think of it as a retreat," Louris told City Pages in 2014. "We licked our wounds and said, ‘Well, that didn't work.’ And, I mean, we weren’t going to go in another direction of weird shit and drony music."
On that stripped-down album, the other Jayhawks continued to step up in Olson's absence. O’Reagan contributed “Don’t Let the World Get in Your Way” and “Tampa to Tulsa”; Perlman wrote “Will I See You in Heaven,” which the band sang in harmony. While lovely song-for-song, Rainy Day Music was a safe move instead of a surge forward, and it arguably cemented the Jayhawks’ image as an easy-listening band. They wouldn’t release another album for seven years.
The Jayhawks' Gary Louris and Mark Olson perform onstage at Barbican Centre in 2012 in London. (Photo by Roberta Parkin/Redferns via Getty Images)
An Ill-Fated Reunion
While the Jayhawks quietly puttered along, Olson was engulfed in a tailspin of his own making.
At home in Joshua Tree, he was a full-time caregiver to Williams, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. During periods of remission, the couple performed and recorded as the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers. After an exhausting 2004 tour of Europe, Olson decided to clear his head and enroll in a geology course at Barstow Community College. "One day, I drove the half-hour to college, and I kept driving," Olson told The Independent in 2007.
Olson didn’t stop until he arrived back in Minneapolis, where, he told Williams, he was crashing with Louris. In reality, Olson had gotten back with an ex-girlfriend. Williams quickly found out and filed for divorce. "The episode put such a strain on me that when I was in Minnesota my behavior wasn't rational," Olson recalled. "I mean, I was eating and doing normal things, but I was actually insane."
A bright spot emerged soon enough: Olson and Louris had reconnected back in 2001 when they were asked to write a song together for the Dennis Quaid-starring sports drama The Rookie. In 2008, they released Ready for the Flood, a duet album produced by the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson. "I'm willing to play it more by Mark’s rules now," Louris told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that year. "There’s definitely some kind of chemistry between us musically that just seems to pick up wherever it left off."
It worked so well, in fact, that Olson briefly rejoined the Jayhawks for 2012's Mockingbird Time, their first with their old co-leader since 1995. International touring followed. Then it all fell apart that same year after a festival gig in Spain. "In front of a bunch of people, Gary said, 'Why don’t you hit me?'" Olson told Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2014. "I don’t ever want to see Gary Louris again, nor do I want him singing my songs," he added.
Despite strong reviews, Louris has since disowned Mockingbird Time: "I don’t even count [it] as a Jayhawks record," he told Wicked Local Beverly in 2019. "I just kinda skip over it. It was a really bad experience. I was trying to force something that wasn’t there anymore with my relationship with Olson." Plus, "I was in the throes of drug addiction at that time," Louris admitted.
Ever since a heart-related surgery in 2003, Louris had been addicted to painkillers, and his drinking was spiraling out of control. "I found I just felt good on these things," he told MPR News in 2016. "I finally felt not-anxious, which is what I had growing up and all of my life, a low-level depression and anxiety." But Louris' need for pills ballooned over time; on one solo tour, he fell over backstage and repeated songs onstage.
The bottom fell out in downtown Los Angeles, when he stood on a hotel ledge at midnight and thought about jumping. Luckily, a friend from MusiCares got him into treatment: "I was so ready. You have to be ready,” he told The Current in 2016. "And I was so ready, it wasn't even funny."
Leaving The Monsters Behind
Sobriety gave Louris a new lease on life. "It’s changed the way I played," he told The Current. "I'm actually much more comfortable on stage straight. I approach the music differently." After spending years blaming music for his problems, he immersed himself in the stuff, writing prolifically in his home studio and twisting found sounds into unrecognizable shapes.
"[I] started dabbling with everything from manipulating radio broadcasts to sampling things off of my vinyl and twisting them into strange compositions," Louris told Courier Journal in 2016. This artistic roll resulted in 2016’s Paging Mr. Proust, which was co-produced by Peter Buck and juxtaposed pop jewels like "Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces" with Krautrock-influenced jams like "Ace" that reflect Louris' outré tastes.
Grotberg had a more hands-on role in Paging Mr. Proust. "I didn’t have any lead vocals that I sang, but there was definitely a lot of prominent piano," she notes. "Also, we started collaborating a little bit [on the writing of 'Lost the Summer,' 'Leaving the Monsters Behind' and 'The Dust of Long-Dead Stars']. There was a lot of freedom on that album. A lot of ‘Let’s get a little jammy and see what happens.'"
Proust’s easy-breezy follow-up, 2018’s Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, was a "cover album" with a twist. Nearly every song had been written by Louris for an outside act, whether it be The Chicks' ("Everybody Knows" and "Bitter End"), the Wild Feathers ("Backwards Women") or Ari Hest ("Need You Tonight"). Grotberg and O’Reagan sang more lead vocal parts than ever — the former on "Come Cryin’ to Me" and "El Dorado," the latter on "Gonna Be a Darkness" and "Long Time Ago."
Back Roads and Abandoned Motels led to a eureka moment for their next album of new material. "It kind of spurred me on… I just start thinking ‘I wish these guys were singing more,'" he says. "I'm singing 95% of the songs, and I have these two other people who sing so well. People love to hear their voices. Not just behind me, but singing lead."
A Full Democracy
In the interest of "opening [the band] up a bit more" and finding a unifying theme for a record, Louris asked Grotberg, Perlman and O'Reagan to write and sing their own compositions for XOXO.
Grotberg contributed two songs that dated back decades. "Ruby," which the Jayhawks occasionally performed live in the 1990s, was written about an elderly woman who cared for her during childhood. "Fast-forward a couple decades, and I hadn’t seen her in a long time. I found her with one foot in this world and another foot in the next," Grotberg says. "So it’s sort of a transition into death, but I view it more as a love song. I was trying to write about her relationship with her husband, which is a beautiful story."
Her impressionistic ballad "Across My Field" was written while living in the countryside. "I was probably sitting there spacing out with a kerosene lamp on the table and looking out across the gravel driveway to that field," she says. "It’s about trying to move forward out of any situation in life. You have to take a step. It’s not necessarily a large step. But you have to step forward." (Grotberg also wrote and sang "Jewel of the Trimbelle," a piano ballad named after a small Wisconsin town where she once lived, which is included as a vinyl-only bonus track.)
Grotberg's bandmates are ecstatic about the leaps she's taken. "Her lyrics are very poetic. It’s a major step for her to be able to express herself more," Louris says, aglow. Adds Perlman, "Gary and I talk about how enjoyable it is to watch her come out of her shell. He and I have been supporters of her songs for a long time. It’s just a question of finding the right time and place for her to step up."
Perlman, who had never sung a lead vocal on a Jayhawks album, wrote "Down to the Farm" half an hour before a writing/rehearsal session. “"I kind of felt like I wasn’t pulling my weight. I kind of got frustrated," he admits. "You’ve got to step up to the plate a little. So I sat down and just popped that one off." ("I love the dark beauty of that song," Louris says of the Leonard Cohen-esque track, noting its theme of "aging and feeling time pass.")
O’Reagan ramps up the energy on XOXO with "Dogtown Days" and "Society Pages," two hard-charging tracks that hint at his power-pop roots in his old band the Leatherwoods. The album’s closer "Looking Up Your Number," a tender, close-miked ballad he wrote more recently, is something else entirely.
"The lyrical content is kind of a well-trod area for me, which is regret over a screwed-up relationship and trying to figure out how to make it work again," O'Reagan says. "I seem to keep going back to that subject in my songs. A lot of selfishness and screwed-up relationships and trying to make good on it."
Louris, Grotberg, O'Reagan wrote the winding "Illuminate" in hot-potato fashion by tossing suggestions back and forth — it’s anybody’s guess whose lyrics were actually whose. "It has a variety of styles within," Perlman says, calling it a "process song." "I do remember that Gary and I had kind of rediscovered the Moody Blues at some point in the last year. I think subconsciously I was thinking of the song 'Question,' which is a beautiful song and has really distinct parts to it. It doesn’t barrel through the song from beginning to end."
As for Louris' songs, "Living in a Bubble" is a bouncy rejoinder to data-tracking and the 24-hour news cycle reminiscent of Harry Nilsson and Elliott Smith; "Homecoming" is a climate-change warning that slowly becomes subsumed in a bit-crusher storm; and "Bitter Pill" is an aching story-song that builds on "Lovers of the Sun" from Paging Mr. Proust.
"It’s a theme that hits close to home for me," Louris said in a statement about "Bitter Pill." "Always searching for the next fix of happiness, the missing piece… never being happy with what one has."
A "Shit Show" For Good Causes
While waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to die down and for concerts to resume, most of the Jayhawks have been at home in Minnesota. "I'm kind of bored, like every musician," Perlman says. While Grotberg, Perlman and O’Reagan have zero desire to live-stream ("I think it would be a challenge for me," O’Reagan says pointedly), Louris has taken to the format like a child clambering on monkey bars.
Every week or so since late April, Louris has hosted "The Sh*t Show," a ramshackle home performance series in which he performs Jayhawks favorites and obscure solo cuts by request. His girlfriend Steph runs point from a second iPad from Canada, and his son Henry, who possesses a dusky tenor like his father, typically joins on-camera to sing backup and cover songs by Radiohead, Paul McCartney and Sean Lennon.
Louris began broadcasting "The Sh*t Show" from his home in West Saugerties, New York; now, it’s live from Minneapolis, where he moved in June just as the George Floyd protests kicked into gear. "We join in with our fellow Twin Citians in expressing our grief over the senseless death of George Floyd," the band wrote in a Facebook statement in June. "Our sympathy [is] with the family and all those affected by the events of the past couple weeks." Given current events, he splits tip jar donations from "The Sh*t Show" between the Navajo Water Project and the GoFundMe for Elijah McClain, who was killed by police in 2019.
Overall, Louris, who has been open about his struggles with depression, looks relaxed hosting his home show — cracking jokes, bantering with the peanut gallery in the comment section, lightheartedly penalizing Henry for sour notes. "He can pull that off. He has the ability to get on a stage," Perlman says of his boss' livestreaming abilities. "I don’t think I’ll ever work with anybody else who is as proficient a songwriter and as talented a singer and as talented a guitar player as he is. People don’t realize what an amazing guitar player he is. You don’t find people with that kind of all-around talent. So he can do that."
"On the other hand," the bassist says, "I would never be caught dead doing something like that."
Photo Credit: TimGeaney
When the pandemic allows for touring and recording again, will the band continue in this democratic format?
"I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve kind of painted myself in a corner," Louris says with a laugh. "There is no rulebook. I’m always going to feel a little bit like a benevolent dictator and the buck’s got to stop with somebody because it’s really hard to have everyone agree on everything. I’ll always kind of sort of steer the ship a little bit more, but hopefully this continues. I have total faith that this will continue."
"We kind of have similar sensibilities between us about what’s good and what ain’t," O’Reagan says, noting that the process of trimming songs was surprisingly painless. "There were no knock-down drag-out discussions about what would make it and what wouldn’t."
"Who knows?" Perlman asks in response to the question. "The songs decide how the record is going to be produced. The next record we make could be completely acoustic, stripped-down. The next record could be all Karen songs for all I know."
To Grotberg, who has had the longest journey of any Jayhawk to the spotlight, there’s no question that XOXO is the beginning of an era. "I’d have to say yes, I do anticipate that," she responds. "It could be that Gary has such a large volume of songs for the next album, but I can’t imagine him saying ‘Nobody else can have a song.’ I imagine that this is a new day."
To that end, nearly four decades since Louris found American traditional music, the Jayhawks are arguably just getting started.