The Jayhawks

The Jayhawks – Back Roads And Abandoned Motels
by Wesley Stace (2018)

Attempts to pigeonhole The Jayhawks have long been fruitless, as any longtime fan or fellow musician knows. The band habitually transcends any label - Americana, Roots Rock, or Alt-Country: you name it - with great songs, musical adventure and sheer derring-do.

Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, the latest addition to the band's varied catalog, is both a case in point and the exception that proves the rule. The record serves only to emphasize the band's pedigree, when by rights it might have been something of a mongrel, given that it largely consists of songs written with (and for) other artists, here in versions recorded for the record by the band. Both title and backstory belie the canny conceptual unity of a record that Jayhawks fans, both more recent converts and those with longer memories, will love. You wouldn’t want to call it Hollywood Town Hall Part Two, but then again... perhaps you would.

There are presumably some listeners who wanted Los Lobos to keep making Will The Wolf Survive? (or, heaven knows, La Bamba) over and over again, for the rest of their careers. Perhaps there were even fans who thought the Beatles let themselves down with the experimental Peppers shit and shouldn’t have ventured beyond the day trippiness of Day Tripper. The Jayhawks’ more outre explorations have met with commercial and critical success - last year’s excellent Paging Mr Proust was proof that there was no intention to go gently into that good night - but there still doubtless remains the occasional Jayhawks fan who wishes they’d stop being clever and make a primarily acoustic country-rock classic again. It’s a rather tedious nostalgia, given the joy the Jayhawks always bring, not to mention the fact that the band has existed in its current line-up for 24 years since they originally parted ways with Mark Olson. The point being: the Jayhawks did those things already back then; they don’t need to keep doing them because we liked it a lot: that’s not how artists work.

But the amazing news about the new album is the unlikeliest news of all: that’s exactly what they’ve done, and in the strangest of ways. A saner man, or even a regular rock critic, might go so far as to call Back Roads and Abandoned Motels “a return to the more acoustic sound of Rainy Day Music,” but the fact is, whatever the reason, the record showcases the band we’ve always loved.

It’s all here: those sweet sweet harmonies, the devil-may-care roots rock, the effortless melodies you can’t believe you haven’t heard before (if you’re a listener) or were too lazy to write yourself (if you’re a songwriter), and those sinewy, beautiful constructed solos that make Gary Louris one of the most underrated guitarists in rock (and roll), and the Jayhawks one of the archetypal American bands. Since Paging Mr Proust, the band has in fact been staking its claim as the greatest backing band in the world, working with the likes of Sir Ray Davies, and the less-knighted but critically revered Wesley Stace AKA John Wesley Harding (and it would be a conflict of interest if I didn’t mention that I were he.) It’s always good to try on someone else’s clothes, see what fits. And that’s what’s happening on this record too.

Far from being, in terms of The Who, a record of odds ’n’ sods, the disparate origins of the songs on display have brought the band, road-tested and barely-rested, closer than ever. They sound totally relaxed and utterly confident in their ability to deliver the goods. They’ve never sounded better, and we’ve never heard a fairer division of labor among the members.

Of the songs on the new record, only two (the last two, Carry You To Safety and Leaving Detroit) were newly written. Others were written with, and for, other artists, bespoke and besung. Gary Louris is a great songwriter whatever the context, and here we find him confident enough to stand back, to share the lead vocals around his fellow singing members, just as those songs were always meant to be sung by others. (Only Marc Perlman, the secret weapon on bass, doesn’t get his own song. Next time, I hope.) All members are of equal value and status, like a band, but, like The Band, you don’t get to be this good without that being true. Here, in the words of Everybody Knows, they’re "stepping out" for the first time.

The harmonies have always been a wonder, an essential part of the Jayhawks experience, but here we get to appreciate their component parts individually. Thus it is that the album boldly goes where no Jayhawks album has gone before, kicking off with keyboard player Karen Grotberg’s first lead vocal. Come Cryin’ To Me was originally written for the Dixie Chicks, their first collaboration with Gary (though it only appeared on Natalie Maines’ solo album Mother), but it sounds like it was written specifically for Karen to sing on this particular record, and it’s a joy, as is her later lead vocal, El Dorado, and her harmonies throughout.

But if it’s Mr Louris you’ve come to hear - and it may well be! - he’s to the fore throughout and up next with another Dixie Chicks associated song that first appeared on their Taking The Long Way album in 2006, since often heard at Louris solo concerts. It’s a statement-of-purpose song, yet, given its co-written origins, the listener can’t necessarily be sure (and I’m too polite to ask) whose statement-of-purpose it actually is. Who’s stepping out? The Dixie Chicks or Mr Louris? Part of the joy of Back Roads and Abandoned Motels is the middle-place that these songs occupy, the universality of their lyrics - they’re kinda covers, they’re kinda not - which frees the band up to play them without self-consciousness, the reason that experimentation can be put to one side. There are some songs to deliver, and many of them have been previously delivered, so best just to allow them to sound as great as a great band possibly can. Which is pretty great. It’s that that makes the record such a familiar and beautiful Jayhawks experience, like those early records, yet played by the band as it is now, with all its know how and experience.

Tim O’Reagan (more commonly known as ‘the drummer’) has sung three or four memorable lead vocals on Jayhawks records previously, songs often played live (Tampa to Tulsa, for example, and Bottomless Cup) but his singing on the stellar Jakob Dylan co-write, Gonna Be A Darkness, makes the song an instant Jayhawks classic, better even than its original version (though it’s not a competition, obviously) which was recorded for the HBO series True Blood. I shan’t list all the songs, though there are co-writes with Carrie Rodriguez, Emerson Hart (from Tonic), Ari Hest, Kristen Hall and The Wild Feathers. None with me, however. Interesting.

In 2018, 34 years after they formed, and 24 years in their current line-up, The Jayhawks are still coming up with new ways to give us everything beautiful. Back Roads and Abandoned Motels is an unexpected and vital corner piece in their puzzle, and it fits together perfectly. May their songs always be sung.

It was 1998 in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter when Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson met at a bar...where they both worked. One was a tramp and one was devastatingly pure. With a ukulele and an acoustic guitar, they formed a band for the same reason kids join gangs— just to survive, but also to unleash the brilliance that was poking them from within. Don’t believe the rumors. Folk Uke is not totally amazing. They’re just kind of amazing. If you find yourself at a Folk Uke show, you are in for a treat— but maybe not the kind of treat that you like the taste of. Come to the show and see for yourself. Better yet, buy their albums first and you may save yourself the trouble. And if you make it to a live Folk Uke show, do your best to enjoy it...and then give them two more chances. They are hit and miss, but so are you most likely, and that is their charm. We live to inspire and we’re tired of writing in third person.



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