ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 27, 1995
By Steve Newton
Here’s a tip for new bands trying to get ahead in today’s music biz: make sure that when any important industry types call and you put them on hold, your music is what they hear while they’re waiting. It worked for the Jayhawks, when American Recordings A&R rep and producer George (Black Crowes) Drakoulias called to chat with Dave Ayers of the small Minneapolis indie label Twin Tone.
“Dave just put the phone down to go grab something and put on our demo tape for, like, holding music,” says Jayhawks lead guitarist–vocalist Gary Louris, on the horn from Dallas. “And George liked it so much he flew out a couple of days later and signed us.”
Since that fateful call turned him on to the Jayhawks, Drakoulias has produced two critically acclaimed albums for the band—1992’s Hollywood Town Hall and the new Tomorrow the Green Grass—and its Gram Parsons–style brand of twangy country-soul has won such influential fans as the Black Crowes and Tom Petty, both of whom have invited the group on extensive North American tours. Louris says the current Petty trek—which visits the Pacific Coliseum next Saturday (May 6)—is quite a bit different from the 1992 outing with reefer-crazed Chris Robinson and company.
“It’s a different thing, totally,” says Louris. “I mean, the Black Crowes is a big party, so I think I’m in better shape than I was then. Tom’s more of a…uhh…straightforward, play-the-music kinda guy, maybe have family and friends with you, your dog. It’s not a big party thing, it’s just about goin’ out there and playin’ music. So we have our fun in different ways.”
One way the Jayhawks have been getting their jollies on the current tour is by performing the 1974 Grand Funk Railroad tune “Bad Time”, which made it onto Green Grass via a loose studio jam. Louris chuckles when told that I’ve still got my old, worn-out, gold-vinyl copy of Grand Funk’s We’re an American Band.
“I was always somewhat of a fan,” he admits. “I had that single, and when I was a kid I had some of the ‘Closer to Home’ kinda records. They were not a huge influence on me, but I did like ’em, and we just started playing ‘Bad Time’ a number of years ago for fun, and it kinda stuck.”
“Bad Time” is the sole cover tune on Green Grass, which features such similarly melodious, sweetly harmonized gems as “I’d Run Away”, “Real Light”, and “Miss Williams’ Guitar”, the latter a tribute to the guitar playing of Victoria Williams, wife of Jayhawks vocalist-guitarist Mark Olson. (Williams is the L.A. singer-songwriter who came down with severe multiple sclerosis and whose predicament—she had no health insurance—resulted in the Sweet Relief benefit album.) Cowritten by Olson and Louris, the tune features two particularly frenzied guitar blasts by the latter, who spent time honing his fingerpicked lead licks in the Minneapolis rockabilly band Safety Last.
“The rockabilly stuff is really fun to play in a band,” says Louris. “It’s not great as far as recording, but for live it’s just so much fun. It made me like simple, raw lead guitar, and it kind of opened the door to become interested in country and folk and blues and soul music. But just because it was such a period kind of music, it kinda made me wanna get out of it eventually, and into a band that was playing more contemporary stuff.”
A Minneapolis resident since 1973, Louris believes the city is large enough that there’s plenty of original music being made, yet not so big that you can’t get to know the people making it. And he claims that the music scene best-known for spawning such revered acts as the Replacements and Hüsker Dü still thrives.
“It seems to be picking up again,” he says. “There’s always a lot of bands coming and going, and it’s never gonna go away. Whether the national spotlight is on it or not, I don’t know, but it’s a good place to be from.”
One person who would agree with that assessment is keyboardist–backup vocalist Karen Grotberg. The newest Jayhawks member, Grotberg was gigging with a Minneapolis country band when a jam session led to her joining Louris, Olson, and bassist Marc Perlman as a full-fledged ’hawk. Tomorrow the Green Grass marks her recording debut with the band.
“It’s opened it up,” says Louris of the addition of keyboards, “and everything doesn’t have to be a guitar solo anymore. She plays a Nicky Hopkins kinda piano, which is really cool; we’ve become a little bit more of a country band because she can play this really great country piano. And her singing is great, too, so that’s an influence right there.”