No. 1 Record

Gary Louris and the Jayhawks have soared with introspective songs and rich melodies. Now, with their upbeat new album, Smile, the band is determined to fly up the commercial charts.

The lead single from the first Jayhawks album in three years doesn't sound much like what you'd expect from the laconic Everlys of the prairie. The guitars of Gary Louris and Kraig Johnson jangle over Tim O'Reagan's insistent drum pulse. Marc Perlman's repetitive, descending bass run bops atop the mix. Louris tosses off the first verse, then leans into the pre-chorus ("I'll never be all you want me to/But that's all right") before stopping short.

The other instruments fall away and Louris drops an arpeggio lick; then O'Reagan's fill brings the band back. Thick, sweet harmonies drape the anthemic chorus: "I'm gonna make you love me/I'm gonna dry your tears/And we're gonna stay together/For a million years."

"I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" is clean and simple. It's catchy. It's fluff. And it's just what Gary Louris set out to do.

Fretting the frets, not the future: Gary Louris
Tony Nelson
Fretting the frets, not the future: Gary Louris

"To this day, I'm ashamed that we haven't had a gold record," the head Hawk says over the phone from his Minneapolis home. "We haven't won a Grammy, we haven't had more success, and I'm embarrassed. I think we should be farther along than we are. Not because I measure everything by sales or money or fame, but I'm competitive.

"You like to think that you're making an imprint on musical history so that someday you can say, 'We were the best,' or 'We deserved a Behind the Music,' as stupid as those things are. Or you're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or you've got a gold record on your wall. I mean, those things sound petty, but they're certainly something I would like to experience."

And in exchange, he's willing to surrender some artistic independence. In a previous incarnation, "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" was known as "Someone Will." Only the refrain was different--very different. Instead of happily-ever-after pap, that version found Louris musing, "I'll never be all you want me to/But that's alright/Someone will, someone will, someone will."

"The song had a much subtler chorus that I really liked," he says. "I was encouraged by the producer and the label--everyone who heard it said, 'I love that song, that's got to be the single. But you have to make the chorus better.' So I worked hard on that song. I wrote with a lot of people, every friend I knew."

This was awkward for Louris, who had never sought help on his own material outside the band. In fact, his reputation as an ace songsmith has made him just such a hired gun in the past, as when he was enlisted to help Kelly Willis pen material for her last album.

"Eventually I was pulling my hair out, and [the label] hooked me up with this guy Taylor Rhodes," Louris says. Rhodes is, in Louris's words, "a bigtime songster" whose tunes have been recorded by the likes of hair-metal balladeers Aerosmith and Nelson and pop-schlock diva Celine Dion.

"I wasn't open to that at first," Louris says. "But I said, 'If you can make this a better song, show me.' I talked to him on the phone, he came up with an idea, and I took it from there.

"I would love it to be on the radio and be one of those songs that's just driving you insane. And if that can get the second song on the radio and the third, that's fine. I'm proud of that song. There was a point where I hated it, but now I love it."

 

Louris is 45 this year. The Jayhawks have been around for a third of that time. They've been no strangers to difficulties in that span, and at least some of their travails have been the consequence of ambition. They'd only made one true studio album--their self-titled debut on the vanity imprint Bunkhouse in 1986--before making the early leap to a major label. George Drakoulias--Rick Rubin's right-hand man at what was then Def American (later American)--inked the Hawks on the strength of their 1989 Twin/Tone disc, Blue Earth, though it was really a collection of glorified demos.

Drakoulias then produced Hollywood Town Hall (1992), and though the album earned critical acclaim, its modest sales couldn't recoup expenses for studio time and extensive promotional and tour support. Most major-label contracts offer bands hefty advances, which are then--along with other "recoupables," including outlays for production, recording, touring, and promotion--deducted from any subsequent profits before royalties are shared with the artist. In this case the Hawks were left holding the bag: They owed Def American a staggering sum that various reports have pegged in the range of several hundred thousand to a million dollars.

What's more, working under Drakoulias had been excruciating for Ken Callahan (the band's third and most steady drummer). He quit rather than return to the studio to record Tomorrow the Green Grass, and Drakoulias brought in session ace Don Heffington. Ex-Leatherwoods sticksman Tim O'Reagan joined the band to tour in 1995--and stuck.

The single "Blue" scored the Hawks' biggest hit to date, but the Green Grass tour was cut short when band co-leader Mark Olson announced his departure. Olson said he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Victoria Williams, who has multiple sclerosis; the couple subsequently settled on a ranch in Joshua Tree, California. Olson and Williams have since made three albums (a fourth, Ben Johnson's Creek, is on the way) as the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers. Their ramshackle front-porch folk sound, their infrequent touring and inconsistent live shows, and their openly anti-commercial stance (the self-released albums are available almost exclusively by mail order) couldn't contrast more starkly with Louris's Jayhawks of today, who seem more committed than ever to finding success on traditional industry terms.

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