Tag Archives: Gary Louris

Everybody Knows – The Jayhawks

One of the things about writing a blog (as opposed to writing for print media) is that I don’t know very much about the people who read the pieces I post here. I don’t, for example, know how old my readers are. I assume I probably don’t have that many readers in their teens or twenties, but there’s no way to find out without asking you all to fill in a survey widget, at which point I imagine none of you would ever come back here again.

Because I don’t know how old any of my readers are, I don’t know whether you’ll all remember the incident that provides the backstory to today’s song, so I’ll got back over it, but only briefly, lest I bore the rest of you.

In March 2003, a few days before the invasion of Iraq by a coalition led by the US and the UK, the Dixie Chicks played a concert in London. The group’s lead singer Natalie Maines expressed her disgust at the military action and said that she and her bandmates were ashamed that President George W Bush was from their home state of Texas. The audience cheered (British solidarity with the US after 9/11 never led to much personal support for Bush).

Their American audience back home, or more accurately a large minority of their audience, particularly in the south, was appalled and angry. Their then single, a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, dropped 33 places down the chart in one week, and the band, Maines especially, received death threats.

The liberal media and the rock press, previously lukewarm towards the trio, came out in support of them, though, and their 2006 album, Taking the Long Way, which was in large part a comment on the 2003 controversy, received the best reviews of their career and a boatload of Grammys.

For that album, the trio looked to writers and co-writers outside the Nashville system, and lighted upon Semisonic’s Dan Wilson (then taking his first steps as a writer for hire, now one of the most highly remunerated writers in the business) and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris. Everybody Knows, co-written with Louris, was a far sharper comment on living as a pariah than the more showy Not Ready to Make Nice, which was plodding and earnest by comparison, with a leaden string arrangement. But Everybody Knows was only a minor hit, while Not Ready to Make Nice, co-written by Wilson, went top five and won three Grammys, including record of the year and song of the year.

Now, Louris and the Jayhawks have recorded their own version of Everybody Knows for their new album, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, a collection of songs Louris has written over the years with other artists. The Jayhawks version of Everybody Knows – the only track available from the album at the moment – is wonderful, with an excellent, moving vocal from Louris and top-notch ensemble performances, particularly from drummer Tim O’Reagan (solid but supple, everything the song needs and nothing more) and the ever-reliable Karen Grotberg on piano and backing vocals. I’ve listened to it over and over in the couple of days since I first heard it, and it makes me smile every single time.

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Still No Clapton, Part 5 – I’d Run Away by the Jayhawks

The first batch of these posts that I did at the very end of 2013 I called “No Hendrix, No Clapton, No Vai”, and not because I dislike those players. It’s impossible to have any feel for rock’n’roll music and dislike Jimi Hendrix. I’m not a shred fan, but I can appreciate Steve Vai’s chops and dedication to his craft, and I genuinely loved No More Amsterdam, his 2012 co-write/duet with Aimee Mann. God, even some Clapton is OK, too, though don’t get me started on his politics. We’ll be here all night and I’ll lose all my good humour.
The point of doing these, then, has been to talk in brief about some tracks I might have struggled to discuss at length in a conventional post, but also to pick out some less heralded players along the way. Sure, J Mascis and David Lindley aren’t unknowns, and Robbie Robertson is a bona-fide legend, but they’re all at least a step down in renown from Clapton and Hendrix, who simply are rock guitar for many people, or Vai, who stands for the 1980s shredders (a school of metal-ish guitarists whose extreme technical proficiency was their key selling point for many of their fans, and who are still high-profile players in guitar geek circles).
Not every great solo proclaims its greatness by being the centrepiece of a classic song, or by lasting for minutes on end, or by being the work of a celebrated player. Today’s choice is indicative of this.
The dominant instrument on my favourite Jayhawks album, Tomorrow the Green Grass, is not Gary Louris’s guitar, but Karen Grotberg’s underrated country-soul piano. The band always sounded more expansive with her on board, and her harmonies sweetened the pinched and nasal vocal blend of Gary Louris and Marc Olsen. All in all, she’s the easily overlooked Jayhawks MVP, like a great defensive lineman.
Nevertheless, Louris remained a powerful presence as lead guitarist. Louris’s playing is ultimately blues derived – most of the licks he plays, Chuck Berry played first – but the Jayhawks have always drawn strength and vigour from Louris’s lead guitar interjections. They add uncomplicated vigour, a swagger even, to a group who’ve rarely strayed all that far from medium-intensity mid-tempo country-rock.
His solo on I’d Run Away is a perfectly constructed little gem with the full range of Louris tricks: an ear-grabbing opening lick that sees him making use of the Vibrola arm on his SG for a strong vibrato, some melodic double-stop licks and a bit of old-fashioned bluesy pentatonic wailing of the type that’s been the backbone of rock guitar since Mr Berry, I guess. It’s the highlight of a song that in typical Jayhawks fashion mixes breezy music with doleful lyrics.

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Gary Louris, still rockin’ that Vibrola-equipped Gibson SG

I’m Down to My Last Cigarette – The Jayhawks

Let’s hear it for those quietly impressive, hard-working sidemen and women. Every band needs one or two. Standing behind Jayhawks singer-songwriters Marc Olson and Gary Louris for most of the 1990s was the unfortunately named Karen Grotberg, with her catseye glasses and slightly bouffant hair, looking like a small-town librarian who hadn’t quite made it out of the eighties (in my head her speaking voice is like Marge Gunderson’s but perhaps I’m just playing with stereotypes now). On the cover of her first album with the group (Tomorrow the Green Grass), she’s pushed off to the side, sitting on her own branch of the tree, looking up rather than at the camera. She was a great country pianist, enlivening even the most pedestrian moments of their occasionally lumpy career, while singing fine harmonies too. When she left the band after the not-country-at-all Sound of Lies album from 1997, the group lost something key to its identity, for sure.

On their cover of the Harlan Howard/Billy Walker chestnut I’m Down to My Last Cigarette (recorded far less frequently than one might expect for a song that sounds ready-made to be a standard, but revived in the late eighties by KD Lang), Grotberg gets a rare lead vocal and has a ball with it. The track sounds like it might have been recorded live in the studio, although this audio-verite feeling is undercut by the decision to give her voice a Sun Records echo. But it’s still a great performance, fun and spontaneous-sounding, down to Grotberg having to cue in Louris for his solo.

The song appeared as a B-side to their 1995 cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s Bad Time, on which Grotberg was elbowed aside in favour of lungs-for-hire Sharleen Spiteri, odd-jobbing as a session singer around LA during Texas’s mid-nineties hiatus. Perhaps Grotberg was given this one by way of an apology. She ain’t Patsy Cline, but on this evidence (and that of a even more impressive recent live recording on YouTube) she’s a better singer than the nasal Olson and hoarse Louris, who on the evidence of the 2011 reunion album Mockingbird Time still haven’t learned to sing close harmony without lapsing into doubling each other’s notes. They still do this one at live shows, Karen getting her well-earned turn in the spotlight.

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Karen Grotberg. © 2009, Steve Cohen