Back in the early 1990s, when the Jayhawks backed revered songwriter Joe Henry on a pair of classic alt-country albums, Gary Louris was already contemplating a solo career that wouldn't come for another 15 years.
"I remember having a discussion with Joe at the time, who was a solo guy and I was a guy-in-a-band," Louris recalls. "It was a classic case of the grass is always greener."
"Joe was like, 'It must be nice being in a band, knowing who's playing with you, and having the camaraderie.' And I was like, 'Man, just to be free and not begotten to anyone would great. You can work with anyone you want.'"
Finally, Louris knows what it's like on both sides of the fence. The former Jayhawks frontman's first solo album, "Vagabonds," gets its national release Tuesday on Rykodisc.
Produced by Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson -- one of those people Louris always wanted to work with -- the disc is a shade grayer and noticeably mellower than his old band's blue melodic twang, but not so different that it needs to be filed in another section of the record store.
Talking last week at a coffee shop in Minneapolis' Bryn Mawr neighborhood, the 52-year-old singer/ guitarist already knows some of the disadvantages of being a solo artist.
"The record got pushed back a few months, so hiring the band I wanted has been a little more difficult than I thought," he admitted with a be-careful-what-you-wish-for laugh. The keyboardist he wanted for his tour was swiped by Robinson for the Black Crowes, the steel-guitar player was hired by k.d. lang, etc.
Nonetheless, Louris took advantage of having a clean slate when it came time to make the album last April. He opted to record in Los Angeles with an all-new group of musicians instead of his Minneapolis cronies.
"Without insulting the locals -- because I love them all and have played with many great people here -- I didn't want it to be Gary Louris & the Program," he said, referring to the group of musicians that his Golden Smog pal Kraig Johnson uses as backers. "I'll work with all those guys again, for sure. But in this case, I wanted to bring in some new people."
Some of the L.A.-based musicians on "Vagabonds" also worked with Louris on a record he made with the Jayhawks' other former singer, Mark Olson, who quit the band in 1995. That album -- also produced by Robinson -- was in the can before Louris' disc, but it's not coming out until summer or fall.
"A lot of those players came out of this jam session that I would go to out in Laurel Canyon on Wednesday nights, all night 'til 5 in the morning," he said. "They all knew each other and came in there with their own built-in chemistry."
Louris and Robinson also knew each other well. The Black Crowes were signed to Rick Rubin's American Recordings label about the same time as the Jayhawks, and the two bands toured together in the early '90s.
"[Mark and I] didn't need a producer to show us exactly how to make a record; we'd done it enough," he said. "We needed a producer to bounce ideas off of and help us put a band together. Chris and Jeff [Tweedy] are probably the two biggest fans I know, guys who listen to tons of records and know everything."
Robinson rounded up a few friends to sing backup on the album, including Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis and her boyfriend, Johnathan Rice. Louris also brought in longtime friend Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. The guests added high-reaching choirlike harmonies on a few tracks, including the bittersweet, Byrdsy gem "We'll Get By" and the gospel-tinged "To Die a Happy Man."
Mostly, though, "Vagabonds" is an intimate affair, played largely on acoustic guitar and piano with spring-jacket-light layers of organ and pedal-steel. The latter half of the album is especially somber and hushed, featuring the road-weary, piano-fueled title track and a lightly plucked gem called "D.C. Blues," stripped to just acoustic and pedal-steel guitars.
"Hand me down my walking cane/ Hand me down my shoes," he sings in "D.C. Blues," one of several tracks featuring some of his most vivid and poetic lyrics to date. "It's my game to win/ It's my game to lose."
Louris admitted he "worked harder on the words than I ever have before.
"I focused on the things I think I'm good at, which is singing and writing. Sometimes with the Jayhawks -- and this was totally my own fault -- you'd have trouble hearing me sing. I've never really made a quiet, intimate acoustic record. 'Rainy Day Music' was like that a bit, but not as much as this.
"Some people were like, 'This is your chance to be more experimental, or to rock out more.' I'll probably do that a bit, but later."
And anyway, Louris said he's not trying to get his solo career up to the level of notoriety and activity that the Jayhawks had. He has booked a few weeks of U.S. tour dates starting in March and a few more later in Europe, all with the San Francisco-based experimental folk band Vetiver as both his backers and openers.
Following the Jayhawks' final tour in 2004, he said, "I settled into just hanging out and being Dad pretty easily," referring to his son Henry, 8. He seemed more eager to promote his wife Julie's new French-themed boutique store, Duetta, in southwest Minneapolis than his album.
"I finally had the chance to tell her, 'You do your thing, and I'll carry the weight more at home,'" he said.
Louris hardly became just a homebody, though. He co-wrote four of the songs on the Dixie Chicks' Grammy-winning album "The Long Road Home." He also wrote with Dar Williams, Susan Tedeschi and Carrie Rodriguez, and he produced the Sadies' last album, just nominated for a Juno Award (Canada's Grammys).
The most significant project, though -- at least on a personal level -- was his two "From the Jayhawks" tours with Olson, featuring their first performances together in a decade.
"Mark and I were close friends for a long time, so the nicest thing is being friends again," he said. (The two reunited again Sunday at the 400 Bar, Olson's gig to promote his own solo album, "Salvation Blues.")
As for the record they made together, he said, "We're both very proud of it. The songwriting was always great between us. We fill in each other's blanks. I think we'll continue to do things together."
In fact, when the idea of future Jayhawks outings was floated, he said "it'd have to be with Mark Olson. That's the biggest regret I have, Mark leaving. I'm proud of what we did afterward, but it would've been interesting to see what else we would've done with Mark."
But no matter what, Louris expects to remain more a solo guy than a guy-in-a-band.
"I expect I'll always be all over the board from here on out," he said. "I admire Neil Young, who can go out solo, or with the band, or with CSN. He keeps himself interested, which is what you have to do."Random mix
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