After years of leading formidable bands to the margins of wide recognition, it seems like something of a surrender for Gary Louris to put his name, alone, on the marquee. Its not that his pet projects have been ignored: The Jayhawks, a band he co-founded, are still of primary import to the ever more depressingly stagnant No Depression scene, while Golden Smog, for which he was chief organizer and most reliable songwriter, were modern Americana’s closest approximation of a dream team. But wanna talk about “always the bridesmaid”? To date, Louris’s biggest renown probably came when the Jayhawks’ “Blue” became the theme song to VH1’s ill-fated Crossroads show.
Still, if the bad news is that the man’s name recognition ranks somewhere near Russ Kunkel’s, at least Louris now feels comfortable commanding this loosely themed record (see the title) that sounds years in the making. Start, appropriately, with “Vagabonds,” as elegant and sprawling as any bit of folk-rock he’s ever recorded, wherein Louris nods to his cathartic solitude by adding “folkie singers with cold harmonicas” to his list of Camaro-driving, weed-harvesting loners who you can’t help but cheer for. (In case you need him to spell it out for you, a harmonica solo comes next.) If Vagabonds‘ other themes are of a piece with late-period Jayhawks—painted with a Wildflowers—era Tom Petty palette and utilizing characters dressed in well-worn denim—the sensitivity and depth with which Louris sketches them is wholly invigorating. As his slackers toke (“I Wanna Get High”), skip town (“Omaha Nights”), and even meet their maker (“To Die a Happy Man”), they manage to be redeeming, even when they don’t do as well as we wish they might. Quietly, it all amounts to a beautiful autobiography for the singer himself.
Gary Louris plays Town Hall April 2, the-townhall-nyc.com.