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Rainy day men: The Jayhawks
Lost Highway

In a town where last call barely makes it past midnight, bar bands are challenged to best the house whiskey for shelf life. That the Jayhawks currently share hallowed saloon spaces with 18-year-old single-malt Scotch is a testament not only to the group's viability, but also its stubborn refusal to give up on the machinations of the music business. Like the C.C. or Lyle's, perhaps the Jayhawks have won their perch by outlasting everyone else.

Of course, some would argue that the Jayhawks reached their critical mass a dozen years ago, back when the Village Voice anointed them "the only country rock band that matters" and there weren't enough cowpunk bands to fill an issue of No Depression. Hell, in those days, the only alternative to country was rock: The Jayhawks practically celebrated their 10-year anniversary before anyone in the music business figured out a marketing angle for their modernized version of the Flying Burrito Brothers. And if there's no way to go but down following a declaration of greatness by the fourth estate, getting hog-tied to the latest trend was just as dangerous. The Jayhawks may be originators of the "alternative country" bandwagon, but they were also one of the first to jump off. Singer/songwriter Mark Olson's departure from the group he founded freed the remaining members to make the passionately bitter Sound of Lies in 1997, an album that revealed the Jayhawks to be a lot more Alex Chilton than Gram Parsons.

"We thought it might be the last record we ever made, so we did a lot of the things that we'd never really explored," said singer/guitarist Gary Louris over the phone recently, talking about Sound of Lies. Yet in truth, the 'Hawks have always stretched for new sounds while demonstrating a rigorous work ethic. 2000's Smile was distilled from at least 50 demos into an elegantly hummable package with the oversight of producer Bob Ezrin, and for the upcoming Rainy Day Music (Lost Highway), the Jayhawks painstakingly spun out nearly as many songs with Rick Rubin. But the difference between the subtle melancholy of Rainy Day Music and anything else the Jayhawks have ever done seems an obvious one in hindsight. Though the band has based its songs primarily on acoustic instruments, its records and concerts have been almost exclusively electric. The notion of trying to create a sparse, less adorned album was buttressed by what Louris refers to as a "triumphant, wonderful" inaugural show the band did as an acoustic trio in Atlanta a couple of years ago.

"We were really into the idea that we could play the song on an acoustic guitar and then add vocals," says Louris of the Rainy Day creation process. "That's the way you could figure out the song was good. We just happened to be touring acoustically because of economics. Actually, if we ever got criticism, it was that we were loud as a full band and sometimes people had a hard time hearing our vocals."

The vocals are everything on the new album, and one of the most striking aspects is the lack of Louris's electric guitar work. The singeing bray of his Gibson and trademark faux-slide leads have mostly been shelved or buried. When the band picks up speed on tracks like "Come to the River," the mix lights up the singing and pushes the guitars into the background. Instead, it's songs like the effervescent folk of "Save It for a Rainy Day" and "Tailspin" that are the signature here; the wonderful reprise of "Stumbling Through the Dark" has all the aching of a Simon and Garfunkel classic.

Indeed, the Rainy Day vocal work shimmers with the best of the Hollywood Town Hall days, seeming even more convincing for mostly having been done live in the recording studio. "If you hear the song," according to Louris, "you're hearing the three or four or five guys who were recording it at that time. The bass/drums/guitars are pretty much live on all songs, too." Illuminating as the format has been for both fans and band alike, the unplugged Jayhawks aren't slated to last much longer. By the time the band begins touring in May, the trio of Louris, bassist Marc Perlman, and drummer Tim O'Reagan will be joined by guitarist/slide player Stephen McCarthy to create a more electric sound.

Still, with seven albums and nearly 20 years of history behind the band, the new acoustic strains of Rainy Day Music suggest the Jayhawks are not content to feather their nests. "We will continue to do it as long as we have a record that's better than the last record," says Louris of the band's future. As these emperors-among-bar-bands ought to know well, some of the best whiskeys don't start to show their real flavor until they've aged 25 years.

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