Formed more than 30 years ago in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, The Jayhawks have undergone something of a career renaissance in recent years. After an ill-fated reunion with founding member Mark Olson came to an end around 2012, the band soon found its footing again and completed a reissue campaign that expanded on some classic albums it made into the early 2000s. Then, in 2016, came Paging Mr. Proust, a lean and imaginative album that saw the outfit taking some of the biggest musical risks of its career.
Along the way, there were stops for backing Ray Davies on the first (and now second) installment in his ongoing Americana releases, plus an album with erudite troubadour Wesley Stace (Wesley Stace's John Wesley Harding). The latest project from The Jayhawks, though, is Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, a collection that gathers songs frontman Gary Louris had written for or with members of the Dixie Chicks, Jakob Dylan and Carrie Rodriquez.
Two brand-new Louris compositions, "Leaving Detroit" and "Carry You To Safety," close out the album, which is available Friday, July 13, 2018.
Although The Jayhawks came out of Minneapolis-St. Paul, you actually have connections to Wichita.
My sister and her whole family live there, and my mother did until she passed away. I've spent many days in Wichita. My mother used to complain about our song of that name. There's a line, "It's an evil land/brings a devil's plough." My mother would say, "But I like it here." I'd have to explain that I didn't write that line. That was Mark Olson.
Why are we called The Jayhawks? I wasn't in the band for the first two weeks, but here I am more than 30 years later. They were already called The Jayhawks and I think it was a nod to The Hawks which became The Band, which was Bob Dylan's backup band. And now we have to forever answer why we're called The Jayhawks and not The Gophers or something.
When did the idea of having you revisit songs you'd written with other artists emerge?
It really came from this guy John Jackson. He's an executive at Sony Legacy. He had helped with The Jayhawks reissues back about 2009-2010. I got to know John. We became good friends. Turns out he's a huge Jayhawks fan. He's a young, cool guy. He's not like some stuffed shirt. He ended up being a player. He plays mandolin, fiddle, guitar. He started sitting in with us and we said, "Wow, we like this guy." He's in the band when he can be. He's the one that connected us with the Ray Davies project. He also suggested the idea for this record. He said, "You're in between records. You haven't started writing and I think Sony would love to put out a record. We'd like to hear you guys reinterpret the songs that you've co-written with other people." So we ran with it.
You mentioned the Ray Davies project and you also did the John Wesley Harding/Wesley Stace album. How has it been for you to be the backing band for other artists?
We've kind of become the world's greatest backing band. I wouldn't do it for just anybody, but I'm a big friend of Wes Stace. When I was growing up Ray Davies was one of my heroes. I think it's fun to be able to show our versatility. We're a good band. Everybody can play in this band. I'm very confident.
I guess you're in a similar terrain to The Hawks, The Band in a way.
I didn't really think about it, but in a way you're right. They're kind of their own band, and then worked with Dylan, then found their own voice and became their own band.
You'll go out and do dates behind this record during the summer. Do you have thoughts about what the next Jayhawks record might be like?
I'm reissuing my solo record, the one I did in 2008, Vagabonds. That'll be out soon. We'll promote this record, but we're not going out on those month-long bus tours anymore. That takes it out of me too much, so we're kind of flying in and out and playing little clusters of shows. Then we get back home so I can take care of my dogs, have a real life.
I've been writing a lot of songs that I'd like to make into another solo record and then The Jayhawks will reconvene. I think the goal is to get more of a democracy, more involvement from everybody, get them writing a little bit more. Have me take a step back a bit and quit hogging the spotlight so much. On this record, Karen Grotberg has two lead vocals and our drummer has two songs. Our bass player has written some really great Jayhawks songs in the past. I'd like them all to kind of step up and I want to see what it feels like.