As he and his Jayhawks bandmates reminisced about the first time they signed a record deal with entertainment and electronics conglomerate Sony Music — a company they’re recording for again 18 years later — Gary Louris really stepped in it.
“Remember they gave us all a TV and some speakers back then?” the frontman asked.
After a moment of awkward silence and then a burst of laughter, Louris sheepishly apologized: “I thought everybody got something.”
This time around, the Jayhawks are happy to have a record deal at all, alongside other career perks that many bands half their age and twice their stature would be glad to have circa 2018.
After experiencing many highs and lows in the 32 years since their first record came out — including several times the band’s status hung in limbo — Louris and the gang are enjoying something of a late career renaissance.
Not only do they have a new record out this week on the Sony Legacy imprint, titled “Back Roads and Abandoned Motels,” but they also have an audience large and dedicated enough to keep playing shows around the country without having to do the kind of long-haul tours they did in the ’90s and ’00s.
“Two months in a bus is just not in the cards for us,” said Louris, now 63.
And at the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, they have each other.
Few bands have stuck it out together the way the core four in the Jayhawks have, with Louris and co-founding bassist Marc Perlman still accompanied by early-’90s members Tim O’Reagan (drums) and Karen Grotberg (keyboards). Each of the latter two also serve as integral co-vocalists — more so than ever, with two tracks apiece as lead singers on the new record.
Other cool things to brag about: British rock legend Ray Davies of the Kinks recently recruited the Jayhawks to serve as his backing band for not one but two rootsy albums, including “Our Country: Americana II,” which just came out last month; and the Cash family asked the Jayhawks to contribute a track to the recently released “Johnny Cash: Forever Words,” featuring lyrics and poems the Man in Black left behind.
Sitting down before a private hometown gig last month, the members feigned indifference to their situation but couldn’t hide their continued affection for the band.
“We still have a lot of fun together … on stage,” O’Reagan said, pausing for comical effect.
Grotberg, who rejoined the band in 2009 after a decade off to focus on motherhood, was more forthcoming: “We’re in a really good space,” she said. “We’re having fun again.”
Things did not look good for the Jayhawks in 1996, when original co-leader Mark Olson quit the band after their would-be breakthrough album, “Tomorrow the Green Grass,” which didn’t exactly break through (though the single “Blue” remains a well-known classic of that era).
Their situation soured again in 2012, when — after a nearly five-year hiatus for all the Jayhawks — Olson got into an acrimonious dispute with Louris following the reunion record “Mockingbird Time.” (Olson continues to tour with his wife, Ingunn Ringvold, and issued a new album last year.)
In each of those cases, the rest of the band rallied around Louris. The guitarist-turned-frontman led them through the dramatic 1997 album “Sound of Lies.” They hit the reset button again with 2016’s more ’60s-flavored rock collection “Paging Mr. Proust,” deemed a comeback by many fans and critics.
Capitalizing on that record’s momentum, the band assembled “Back Roads and Abandoned Motels” relatively quickly, helped by the fact that Louris essentially had these songs waiting in the wings.
All but two of the album’s 11 tracks are ones he co-wrote with other artists. They include two Dixie Chicks contributions (“Everybody Knows” and “Bitter End”) and another written for Chicks singer Natalie Maines’ 2013 solo album (“Come Cryin’ to Me”). Others were penned with Jakob Dylan, Carrie Rodriguez, Wild Feathers, Tonic’s Emerson Hart and Ari Hest.
The other Jayhawks approached the songs as they would any other Louris compositions, said O’Reagan. The drummer’s singing duties include lead vocals on the epic track written with Dylan, “Gonna Be a Darkness,” originally featured on a soundtrack for HBO’s “True Blood.”
“It seemed really easy because we had already spent a good amount of time rehearsing the songs,” he said, “and because we already had a blueprint of them to go on.”
Louris, however, said these tunes don’t feel quite like the others he’s written, a change-up he appreciated.
“When you co-write, you let somebody else in, and write to their situations,” he said. Louris singled out the new album’s two Dixie Chicks cuts, originally composed for the trio’s Grammy-winning 2006 album “Taking the Long Way,” after Maines badmouthed then-President George W. Bush on stage in London.
“Those were written in the shadow of that whole run-in with the Bush empire, when [the Chicks] really felt like a lot of their friends and their industry were abandoning them,” Louris said, underlining the more timeless angle of “finding out who your real friends are.”
Green grass again
The idea for “Back Roads and Abandoned Motels” came from a new, well connected friend of the Jayhawks: multi-instrumentalist John Jackson, an in-house producer and executive at Sony in New York who’s now the band’s fifth member. He first got involved co-helming reissues of “Tomorrow the Green Grass” and its alt-country-definitive predecessor “Hollywood Town Hall” for Sony Legacy.
“It turned out he was a longtime fan of the band,” Louris recalled. “Then it turned out he also plays, and plays very well. He just started flying out to gigs on his own dime when he could. Next thing you know, he’s a part of the band.”
Jackson meets up with the group at its sporadic intervals of three- or four-gig runs, including hometown shows this week at the Minnesota Zoo amphitheater on Sunday, the Electric Fetus on Monday and Stillwater’s Lumberjack Days next Saturday.
The group is also recruiting horn players to sometimes join them on stage, just as it did for the new record. Also, look for both O’Reagan and Grotberg to be singing more in concert.
“I miss the days when I could sit back and just play guitar more,” Louris said, “and these guys are too good to only sing one or two songs a night.”
Another new circumstance: Louris himself now has to fly into Minneapolis whenever he hooks up with the band. With his son now off to college in the Boston area, the bandleader has resettled in North Carolina.
“It’s a really strange thing to stay in a hotel in a town where you lived for 43 years,” he said, “but other than that, we make it work pretty easily band-wise.”
In fact, both he and Perlman make it sound like it’s easier than ever being in the Jayhawks.
Said the bassist, “A lot of the old pressure we used to put on ourselves is gone. We’ve been doing this long enough, we know where we fit.”
In other words, they’re content not trying to be rock stars anymore.
“Our mentality used to always be we needed to get up to that next rung, or always be a little bit cooler than those other bands,” Louris said. “Now, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m happy to take what the world has given us.
“It’s not like we’ve given up, but we’re sticking to what we do best. Which is to just work on the same type of songwriting and vocals we always have done, and to use that energy we get playing together as a band.”