After more than 20 years with the seminal alt-country group, The Jayhawks, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Gary Louris has been enjoying the creative freedom of being a solo performer since the group disbanded in 2005.
“Music is a journey,” said Louris who started down the road to a musical career at a very young age in Toledo, Ohio. “I took to music very early. I took piano lessons as a child and by 14 had gotten a guitar and just knew this is what I wanted to do. But it took me a long time to get anywhere because I was a very shy kid and was afraid to get in a band.”
After graduating in 1973 from St. John’s Jesuit High School, where there was no music program at all, Louris moved to Minnesota for college. “Even though I loved music and my guitar, because I was so shy, I didn’t get in a band until I was in college,” he recalled. Records played a big part in his musical evolution. “The Who and George Gershwin were probably my favorites,” he said. “I had quite a broad taste when it came to music. I still do.”
The Jayhawks formed in 1985 after Louris had left his college rockabilly band, Safety Last. Concurrent with his time in The Jayhawks – who released eight career albums -- Louris became a charter member of an alt-rock supergroup called Golden Smog that also featured members of Soul Asylum, The Replacements, Big Star and Chicago’s own Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. A total of five Golden Smog albums were recorded by the ensemble over the years, the last being “Blood on the Slacks” in 2007.
While there are no plans at present for future Golden Smog gatherings or recordings, Louris told how Jody Stevens of Big Star dropped in to sing with him at a gig earlier this week. “There’s still a lot of love there and we’re all good friends, so there is always a possibility. I think we would all certainly entertain the idea, but the hard part is getting everyone’s schedules together,” he said.
In his post-Jayhawks years, Louris has found time to lend his writing, performing and production talents to projects and songs by acts as diverse as John Hiatt, The Black Crowes, The Dixie Chicks, Nickel Creek, The Wallflowers, Roger McGuinn and Counting Crows.
Although he has regrouped with his old band mates to record songs in recent years, Louris advises fans not to hold their breath for any sort of reformation. “It was enjoyable (recording with them for the 2011 “Mockingbird Time” album) but…,” his voice trails off before shifting gears. “I’m enjoying the solo performances right now.”
Louris will do such a performance Saturday at Valparaiso’s Memorial Opera House as part of the ongoing “Imagine Music Series,” presented by local promoters Rob Harkel and Brad Koeppen. “We have wanted Gary at the Opera House for a long time now,” said Harkel, who expects Louris will fill the seats. “We are very happy he’s here and people can expect a great show.”
“It’s strictly solo – me, my guitar and my voice,” said Louris of his Saturday concert. “There’s a fair amount of Jayhawks stuff, there’s songs I’ve co-written for other people, some of the Golden Smog stuff. It’s whatever floats my boat at the time. Playing songs that I really want to play is what is important for me.”
Although he does not encourage requests, Louris said if someone shouts out a title, he will consider it. “I’ll listen to those suggestions and if I’m in the mood to play that song I’ll do it, or if I feel prepared to do it. My shows are fairly loose. But if I’m not in the mood, I won’t.”
After appearing on several Jayhawks and Golden Smog albums, Louris finally got around to releasing his first solo album in 2008. That CD, “Vagabonds,” was recorded in Laurel Canyon and produced by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes. The song, “She Only Calls on Sundays,” received a fair amount of airplay at college radio, National Public Radio and at open-minded commercial stations like Chicago’s own WXRT-FM.
“It was a very good fit, working with Robinson. I’ve known Chris for so long, that even though he is younger than me, I look to him like an older brother,” recalled Louris. “There was a lot of love in the room when we recorded those songs. It was a very enjoyable process. He had a lot of positive energy and was very decisive about the songs, which I needed because there were a lot of songs we sifted through for that album.”