In a perfect world, the Jayhawks’ mournfully melodic “Blue” would be a hit. A big hit.
Guitarist Gary Louris, who penned the song with singer Mark Olson, isn’t foolish enough to make a prediction. Besides, like his fellow band members, he’s his own worst critic.
“I just don’t know if we’re ever going to be able to write a better song than that,” Louris said recently during a stop on the Minneapolis-based country-rock quintet’s mini-tour, weeks before hooking up with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.
“I don’t know if our records are always going to sound this successful,” Louris said of their second American Recordings album, “Tomorrow the Green Grass,” which is deeply rooted in rich harmonies and pop-folk charm. “They’re unabashed pop songs, and I’m not apologetic about it at all. We like good pop songs, as long as they’re not too light.”
Louris sees almost a light-year’s difference between “Green Grass” and the Jayhawks’ rootsy big-label debut, “Hollywood Town Hall” (1992). Despite its nearly universal appeal, “Hollywood Town Hall” wasn’t exactly what the group had in mind.
“Artists aren’t always their own best judges,” Louris said, “but knowing what we went through on it and what we wanted and what happened, we felt like we could do better. And we think we have on ‘Green Grass.’ ”
“Hollywood Town Hall” was “fraught with problems,” he said. The band was suffering from major-label jitters; their drummer had to be canned because he wasn’t cutting it, and their engineer also was fired.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ is a really good record,” Louris said, “but we were a little uptight. We weren’t really able to explore as much as we wanted, like different setups in songs, different interpretations. We just went for one sound, which might make for a decent record, but it’s also a nearsighted view of the whole Jayhawks sound.
“I think you haven’t seen everything of what we want to do. After we make 15 records or something, maybe you can look back and put them all together and see what we were really all about.”
The Jayhawks almost didn’t make it this far. After years of toiling on the club circuit in the ’80s, a few independent releases and personnel changes, the band seemed destined to go no further. Worst still, Louris nearly died in an auto accident in October 1988.
“I broke my pelvis, I lost my spleen and appendix. I bruised my heart and had liquid on my lungs, bruised ribs, all kinds of things,” he said. “I was just broadsided by a car when I was driving one afternoon.”
His rehabilitation, coupled with a new romance, prompted Louris to quit.
“I was out of the band for about four or five months before I realized I was driving my girlfriend and myself crazy,” he said. “I used to sneak into their shows in disguises and watch them play, because they had continued with another guitar player.
“But they missed me. They needed me, and they asked me individually to come back, and I was certainly ready to come back. And I haven’t looked back since.”
BWF (before we forget): The Jayhawks chart-album discography – “Hollywood Town Hall” (Def American, 1993); “Tomorrow the Green Grass” (American, 1995); “Sound of Lies” (1997); “Smile” (Columbia, 2000). … The group’s Lost Highway debut album, “Rainy Day Music,” was released on April 1, 2003.