As much pride as we might want to take in the logic and rationality of our modern era, sometimes moments so ironic and unfortunate cause even the biggest skeptics to admit that some people just seem cursed. Musicians—who’ve already ceded much of their control to fickle consumers and even more fickle record companies—must be particularly hesitant to think about the cruel hand of fate possibly waiting to slap their artistic creations out of the air just before reaching their zenith. Whatever the case, fate seems to take particularly sadistic pleasure in jerking around the Jayhawks.
Their early history began fortuitously, with the improbable meeting of a rockabilly bassist named Mark Olson and a shaggy beanpole of a guitarist named Gary Louris in Minneapolis. Olson and Louris arguably became the first non-brother tandem to enter into the perfect harmony canon of the Delmores, Louvins and Everlys. But every step up only put them in a higher position from which to fall. From their battles with debt and unsupportive labels to the constant defection of band members (leaving only three permanent members on payroll, out of the 12 who at some point called themselves Jayhawks), the band seems always on the verge of both breaking through and breaking up.
Never was that paradox more evident than in 1995, when the Jayhawks released their watershed Tomorrow the Green Grass, an album that received both radio and video support for the soaringly perfect “Blue.” Shortly afterward, Olson decided that making music with his wife, Victoria Williams, was more important than capitalizing on his position at the top of the burgeoning alt.country movement. The Jayhawks’ impending commercial breakthrough faded into oblivion, while the remnant decided whether they could even go on.
But go on they did, using Olson’s departure as the impetus to explore sounds not fitting neatly within the perceived boundaries of the genre they helped define. Earlier this year, with the impending release of Rainy Day Music—which may be their best album since Tomorrow the Green Grass—The Jayhawks seemed poised to recapture the momentum lost during their foray into experimental rock with 1997’s bitter Sound of Lies and 2000’s ebullient Smile (both exceptional records that stalled because of label neglect and commercial disinterest).
Earlier this year, The Jayhawks found their plans once again deferred; Louris was diagnosed with pericarditis, a potentially fatal heart infection that nearly also felled fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan in 1997, and the band put on indefinite hold their world tour in support of the album. Once more it seemed that fate had cut the Jayhawks’ legs out from under them, just as they were finding their footing again. “It was pretty serious to me,” Louris laughs, three weeks after their tour was officially canceled. “I think the actual virus was maybe not life-threatening, but … there were a few days when they didn’t know if it was something else, and that was pretty scary for me.”
Now on the road to recovery, Louris can take solace in the fact that when he’s again ready to hit the road, it will be with some of the strongest songs to be produced during the band’s 17-year history. “It’s kind of action and reaction,” Louris says, describing their return to a more simplified approach. “It’s kind of human nature to want to do something that feels new again, and I think for us this approach, which I think we had early on in our careers, is new to us again.” And it all seems so incredibly natural, like shaking hands with an old friend. In fact, not until about halfway through Rainy Day Music do you realize that you’re hearing the most distinctively roots-centric album the band has made since Mark Olson shared the helm.
Returning to their formative sounds with only half the original songwriting duo didn’t daunt Louris. “It has been seven years. If we haven’t adjusted by now, I think that’s a real problem,” he contends. “I think the shadow of Mark Olson will always be cast over the band maybe in a good way, but it has been seven years, and I think we’ve lost the people who decided that we weren’t as good as we were with Mark, and we’ve gained some people who probably never even heard us back then.
“I think we’re on our own road now, although now I look forward to working together with Mark again at some point in side projects or as a friend. I think we’re pretty comfortable making music like we are now. I don’t think [recording the new album] felt odd at all. It’s not like we’re trying to recreate anything.”
Still, the return to such straightforward songcraft comes as something of a revelation for a band that had wandered so far from their original sound; the Jayhawks seemed more likely to make a full-on electronica album than return to the twang and croon of their early releases. Olson’s departure had left a temporary void in the controls of the band, allowing them the artistic freedom to stray from the expectations they faced as darlings of the alt.country crowd. The genre was simultaneously nurturing and limiting to a band wanting to stretch their sound beyond the confines of the pedal steel and the fiddle.
“It felt liberating to just say, ‘What do we have to lose at this point?’ Mark Olson has left the band. We’re definitely going to sound different,” Louris says matter-of-factly. “Because you look at some of these scenes—it’s very claustrophobic. You’re supposed to cover certain bands. You’re supposed to sound like certain bands. You’re supposed to look like certain bands—it makes you just want to bust out.
“I think we’ve listened to all kinds of music, but I don’t think any of us grew up playing country music; we came to that a little later in our musical life, which will always be kind of what defines us as we are,” Louris continues almost apologetically. “We’re not a country band. We never were. We’re kind of a square peg, you know, we don’t really fit anywhere. That’s kind of the beauty of it. My favorite band is usually the band that you can’t really say there is another band that sounds exactly like them. And I think you can say that about the Jayhawks. There really isn’t another band that sounds like the Jayhawks.”
Whatever they are, Rainy Day Music is the sound of a confident band distilling their aesthetic in 50 minutes of melodically embracing heartland music tempered with the warm production and uneasy sentiments that color the Jayhawks’ best work, embracing the best of what has made them so special for so many years and reducing it to the simple pairing of melody and verse. If that means a return to the sounds that previously limited their progression as a band, so be it. Louris makes no apologies for the band dipping their toes back into the streams of bedrock American forms.
“I think that’s something that we’ve done and we continue to do,” he says of their ability to continue to incorporate the music of rural America into their work. “It’s one element to what we do, and I’m certainly proud of that. That’s one of the things I’m proud of in this record. I think it really reflects, dare I say, our roots.”
For Louris, this record is a thank-you to those who’ve stuck by them when critics and record labels hesitated. He says forthrightly, “In some ways, it’s a gift to them. This is a record for you, you know, for people who have listened to us and gone in many directions with us. This is, I think, kind of a record for the fans.”
But Louris also realizes that the industry locomotive’s insatiable desire for a hit is unlikely to make a stop for them at this point. More than the commercial breakthrough always seemingly just beyond their grasp, he sees the creative process as its own reward.
“I think everybody else thought we’ve been on the verge. I think I’m pretty realistic. I look at the musical climate and I don’t expect every mall to be littered with Jayhawks albums and every junior-high kid wearing Jayhawks T-shirts to school. I think if that was our goal, to be stars, I would be disappointed. But I think I’ll look back and say, ‘We made records for a living, and they’re all good.’ And I don’t think many bands can say that.”
No matter what unfortunate destiny may befall them in the future, the Jayhawks’ objectives remain constant. “I think it has always been, let’s write the coolest song ever written,” Louris says convincingly. “And I think that’s still the main goal.” As to whether his brush with mortality will serve as a catalyst for a change in the direction of his art, Louris is less sure. “No. I don’t think so,” he laughs. “I’m not going to make that big of a deal out of it.”