The Jayhawks' Gary Louris Reflects on Working With Ray Davies, Dixie Chicks & Writing an Album With Emerson Hart

SamĀ Erickson
The Jayhawks

In their 33 years as a band, Minneapolis roots rock greats The Jayhawks have existed in several incarnations. But perhaps to the dismay of Tomorrow the Green Grass diehards out there, it's this current lineup of the band that's proved to be the most enduring.

Despite a momentary reunion with band co-founder Mark Olson in 2011 with Mockingbird Time, it's the longtime lineup of lead vocalist/guitarist Gary Louris, keyboardist Karen Grotberg, drummer Tim O’Reagan and bassist and sole founding member Marc Perlman that has been the most consistent under the Jayhawks brand. That core four has been together since 1997s underrated Sound of Lies, punctuating such Jayhawks treasures as 2000's Smile and 2003's masterful Rainy Day Music before the group took a hiatus in the mid-to-late '00s. Their newest member is guitarist John Jackson, who they met at their current label Legacy Recordings, where he serves as the company’s senior vice president of A&R, and who recently wrote a heartfelt appreciation piece about being both a fan and a member of his favorite band over at No Depression.

On their tenth studio album, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, the Jayhawks take on songs that chief songwriter Louris had written in collaboration with other artists, acts as varied as The Dixie Chicks, Ari Hest, The Wild Feathers, Jakob Dylan, Carrie Rodriguez and Emerson Hart of Tonic. Yet when performed all together as proper a Jayhawks LP, it flows with a comfortably warm cohesion that will lead you to believe they were all done in one session. This all comes on the heels of the Jayhawks' most prolific collaboration yet, serving as the backing band for Ray Davies of The Kinks on his acclaimed two part Americana album project, the most recent of which, Our Country: Americana Act II, was released only three weeks before Back Roads. Louris took some time to speak with Billboard about the construction of the new Jayhawks LP and the privilege of working with English rock royalty.

How does songwriting collaboration come about for you? Are you generally approached by the artist?

I think the main thing was where people came to be fans or had already liked the Jayhawks. We also have my publishing company, Warner-Chappell, and there will be certain people who were attracted to our songs and wanted to put things together for a project. Mostly, however, it’s through people like Rick Rubin, who connected us with the Dixie Chicks, who themselves seemed to know who we were. Jakob Dylan was a friend. But mostly it was people who knew our music and wanted to work with us or wanted to work with me because they liked what they heard.   

The tune you did for Emerson Hart came as a surprise, considering how much The Jayhawks and Tonic existed on opposite ends of the radio dial in the '90s. What gravitated you towards working with him?

That’s an example of the publishing company’s hand at the time by putting two people together in Nashville. I didn’t really know anything about Tonic, and I didn’t know anything about Emerson. But we sat in the room together, and it felt like a blind date. We immediately hit it off and wrote “Long Time Ago,” which was the first one we wrote and the one that appears on Abandoned Motels. We went on and wrote a whole album, which we still hope to one day finish and put out. But we found a common ground, and Emerson is a fantastic writer. Maybe The Jayhawks and Tonic don’t seem like the obvious match, but Emerson and I together just sorta clicked. We came up with stuff that had very little to do with his band or my band I’m a huge fan of Emerson’s. We just got along, and that’s the cool thing about co-writing. You never know what’s going to happen.

How much did you know about the Dixie Chicks before you began working with them?

Honestly, I didn’t know much about them either. I knew of their success, but I didn’t know their music. I happened to meet up with them in a time where they were really shifting away from caring about... well, they were really shifting away from caring about country music and country radio and just giving the middle finger to that because they realized they were being abandoned. I was lucky enough to get involved with them what they were just really open to expanding their sound. Unfortunately, there’s not really a lot of that I’ve come into contact with since. My phone didn’t ring off the hook after that. But I’m proud of what we did together.

What was it about these three particular Dixie Chicks songs that you included on the new album?

“Come Crying To Me” was the first song I wrote with the Chicks when I went down to Austin, Texas. Didn’t hear anything for a month or two after that, so I thought, "Well, that was that." Then they called me and asked me to come out to L.A. and work with them there, and that’s where we wrote “Everybody Knows” and “Bitter End” along with some other songs. “Come Crying” wound up not being used on a Dixie Chicks record, it was used for Natalie Maines’ solo debut. They’re strong songs, and I think they anchor this album in many ways.

How do you feel these versions of the songs that appear on Back Roads and Abandoned Motels differ from the ones you penned for any of these artists?

I didn't reinvent them. But I certainly I think we felt like, okay, let’s extend it a little bit, let’s slow it down or speed it up. I don’t feel like we reinvented the songs; they were already in our wheelhouse. It was more like how would we do it differently, and it many ways it wasn’t that different; maybe it was more of a live, maybe less produced and more down-and-dirty version.

You end Back Roads and Abandoned Motels with two new songs, almost like an ellipsis of things to come for The Jayhawks. What inspired the direction for “Carry You To Safety” and “Leaving Detroit”?

“Leaving Detroit” was at the tail end of the songs I wrote for the album we did with Peter Buck before this one, Paging Mr. Proust. It came in late in the game, and it felt good but it didn’t really fit the record. It was kind of in homage to Burt Bacharach or Jimmy Webb, a rootsy and sophisticated song. That was always on our minds, because we loved the song but it definitely didn’t fit well with the rest of the album. “Carry You to Safety” was a song I wrote when I met my girlfriend in L.A. in 2016. She’s a very strong, brave person, but the one thing she is afraid of is the ocean and waves. And the song is me saying ‘I will be there for you.’ So both those songs were a step outside the rootsier feel of the rest of the album. There were other song co-writes that I had written with other people. But at the end of the day, we felt what we had put together was the record.

Were there any other factors that inspired the makeup of this album?

Actually, my buddy John Jackson -- who plays guitar, mandolin and violin on the album -- it was his idea to do Back Roads and Abandoned Motels. But I think another inspiration for this record was the fact that when we were doing promo for our other record, or whenever the four of us would sit in a room together -- Tim, Karen, Marc and I -- and just play stripped down, the beauty of the synergy between the four of us together in a very simple format is quite powerful. This record was very much like that: us sitting in a room together playing live. And that’s mostly what the bones of this record are. It’s very much a live album that brings out all the personalities in the band and the three vocals coming together in a natural way without manipulating things too much in the studio.

And lest we forget to talk about the biggest collaboration of the Jayhawks’ career thus far, the Americana albums with Ray Davies. What was the best part of working with him for you?

What I love about Ray was he respected that we were a band; we weren’t a bunch of session musicians. He wanted a band. He wanted people who had history and have bonded through bickering and connections. I’m glad we rose to the occasion. He’s one of my ultimate heroes. The Kinks were the godfathers of punk. And a lot of punk rockers might have hated the old classic rockers, but they all respected The Kinks.

Did you ever get to see The Kinks in concert?

I first saw them when they were touring the States for Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace. I met them backstage at one of the shows. It was at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis after sound check, and I got them to sign my copy of Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround record.

What do you think about the prospects of a Kinks reunion?

I hadn’t heard the rumors, but it would be great. We are one of the only bands if not the only band who worked with both. We worked with Dave before we worked with Ray. We contributed to his album I Will Be Me. And I played with Dave in Europe. I like to think we are a bridge between Ray and Dave. I’d be happy if it happened.