A View of the Jayhawks from the Outside In

John Jackson. Photo by Steven Cohen.

Editor's note: When we named them our July Spotlight artist, we asked the Jayhawks to write a few words giving some insight into the band and its music. John Jackson, the band's newest member, who plays mandolin, fiddle and guitars on their latest album, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, stepped up with this appreciation for Gary Louris and his spirit of collaboration.

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July 4, 1993, Chicago — I’m 18 years old and standing amidst a sea of sunburnt Midwesterners at Taste of Chicago, my first foray into big summer music festivals. My current favorite band, the Jayhawks, are playing the main stage and break into “Settled Down Like Rain” from their recent album, Hollywood Town Hall, a record that quite literally changed my life. After years of bad hard rock and metal cassettes circulating in my collection I’d finally found a current band with a sound and vibe that spoke to exactly what I thought music should be.

June 16, 2018, Brooklyn, New York — I’m standing on the stage in Prospect Park along with Gary Louris, Marc Perlman, Tim O’Reagan, and Karen Grotberg, with my trusty Gibson Hummingbird, playing “Settled Down Like Rain,” now a member of the Jayhawks and co-producer of their forthcoming new album. How the heck did that happen?!

I’m glad you asked. What it comes down to mostly is that Gary is one of the truly nicest and most open people I’ve met in my 20 years in the music business. He listens to ideas and has a huge heart, two qualities that many musicians sorely lack, and those are key elements to the widely varied success he has found during his career. Sure, he’s the main songwriter and singer in the Jayhawks — my vote for the best American band of the last 30 years — but he’s also a fantastic sideman as well, and a songwriting collaborator that always brings out the best in whomever he’s working with. He draws in talented people and, through some kind of genius osmosis, makes the whole more valuable than the sum of its parts.

The first song I was aware of that Gary co-wrote outside of the Jayhawks and Golden Smog, his side band with Dan Murphy from Soul Asylum, Marc Perlman from The Jayhawks, Kraig Jarrett Johnson from Run Westy Run, and, eventually, Jeff Tweedy, fresh from the Uncle Tupelo breakup, was “Take Me Down” from Kelly Willis’ album What I Deserve. It kicks off that album and is immediately recognizable in Gary’s zone. Until I looked at the credits I thought Kelly was ripping him off. From that discovery, I was obsessed with any songs that Gary was a part of. I mean, the guy had a great band that was actively making great records. Why would he be giving away great song ideas?  As I found out later, it’s a part of his generous spirit and willingness to help other people be their best with no expectation for recognition in return. Other co-writers attempt to overshadow the songs they’ve been a part of by flaunting their involvement in them, but not Gary. He has quietly helped many artists, big and small, write what are often the best songs in their catalogs.

The first time I got to play music with Gary was by accident. In my role as an A&R guy at Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings label, I had co-produced a Jayhawks “Best Of” and deluxe reissues of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass in 2012 with the band’s archivist, PD Larson. Ostensibly this was because their label, Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, had switched distribution and the catalog needed to be re-activated via Sony. But really it was because I was a fan and felt the band deserved all the attention it could get. The reissues were well received and the band reunited with Mark Olson to celebrate the occasion. This reunion led to a new album and a tour, which then lead to a second break with Olson. This was particularly rough on Gary, and he decided to embark on a solo acoustic tour. At that time, I was playing with a singer-songwriter friend from Connecticut, and when Gary’s show in Fairfield, Connecticut, was advertised as sold out with no opening act listed, I couldn’t help myself. I asked if we could open the show for him, and he said yes. After a quick soundcheck, Gary pointed at my mandolin and said, “Hey, you can actually play that thing. You want to sit in with me? What songs of mine do you know?” Of course my response was “Yes!” and “All of them!”

Two of the songs that Gary was playing on that solo acoustic tour were “Everybody Knows” and “Need You Tonight.” Both songs felt incredibly familiar and at home with his classics, but it took me a second to place where I had heard them before. Obviously the Dixie Chicks album Taking The Long Way was a massive success, and its lead track, “Not Ready To Make Nice” was a huge hit. But other songs on that album are perhaps more lasting and meaningful, songs like “Bitter End,” “Baby Hold On,” and “Everybody Knows.” These are the songs I was personally drawn to on that album without knowing that Gary was a co-writer on all of them. After that solo gig, I had it in the back of my head that the Jayhawks should record some of Gary’s co-writes and expose his ability to elevate others in a way that he would never directly talk about.

A few years later, after an 18-month full-on bus tour of the US and Europe, a couple times over, in support of 2016’s Paging Mr. Proust, there came a casual conversation of “what’s next” for the band. Gary was very hesitant to commit right away to another new album, with the touring and promotion that comes along with it. I suggested that instead of something big and daunting, we could do something small and inexpensive while adding some already proven songs to The Jayhawks canon. Gary was immediately interested, and the process began of whittling the songs down. Gary was enthused that it would give Tim and Karen an opportunity to sing more lead vocals and the arrangements could be stretched out a little, including the first-ever horn section on a Jayhawks track. We decamped to Flowers Studios in Minneapolis with Ed Ackerson at the helm and within about eight days, we had 11 songs tracked complete with overdubs and their signature three-part harmonies, and the tracks were sent to our great mate Guy Massey in London to mix.

The idea that Back Roads and Abandoned Motels is the new Jayhawks album is surreal. I couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s out in the universe and people get to hear my favorite band doing new material. But to me, it’s much more a testament to Gary and a summary of the way he is in the world. Always kind, always inclusive, and always willing to make other people better in the process, whether they know it or not.

John Jackson (shown above playing with Gary Louris and the Jayhawks at the Todos Santos Festival in Mexico) is the head of A&R at Sony Music's Legacy Recordings, where he has overseen the catalog development of AC/DC, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, among others. John graduated from Indiana University with the world’s first bachelor of arts degree in rock and roll history, focusing on the life and cultural impact of Elvis Presley. He is also a multi-instrumentalist and member of the Jayhawks and co-producer of Ray Davies' Americana series of albums.

I was at that Grant Park show July 4, 1993; hot as hell, big crowd.  Listened to 5-6 songs, not my cup of tea that day, but came around years later. Hadn't seen them again until a week ago at Thalia Hall. The band sounded great throughout.  The new songs all sounded like The Jayhawks, a few were good and a few held back the set.  Gary has a great voice and guitar sound, the harmonies were strong.  Covering Grand Funk's I'm In Love With A Girl as the final song of the night was a fun way to end the set.