Gary Louris could ve gone to college at Notre Dame instead of the University of Minnesota. He could ve studied architecture at Columbia University. He could ve kept to himself and never met Mark Olson back in the early 80s.
But he didn t, and the musical world is richer for his choices.
The decision to leave Toledo for Minnesota after graduating from St. John s High School put Louris in the thick of a rich Minneapolis music scene that gave birth to seminal roots rockers the Jayhawks and alt-rock super group Golden Smog, in both of which he is a key member.
Along the way he collaborated with such artists as John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Counting Crows, Joe Henry, and Roger McGuinn, carving out an influential body of work as a band leader, producer, backup singer, and jack-of-all-trades collaborator.
Now he s on his own for awhile with his first solo album, Vagabonds, which lyrically and musically reflects all those choices Louris made.
He said if the disc, produced by Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, has a theme it s all these different choices you make and whether fate is involved or it s just meandering.
The disc features bits and pieces of all Louris work over that time: the organic sound and vivid lyrics of the Jayhawks, beautiful harmonies, and pristine production that makes the music jump out of your speakers. An evocative writer, Louris had a wealth of songs to choose from.
It s not hard for me to write a song, but to really finish it, sometimes I have problems because I prefer to come up with new songs rather than finish old ones, he said in a phone interview. So I came up with a backlog of material and it became kind of a science to sort through them.
He enlisted the help of Robinson, who is an old friend, to listen to the tunes and give him honest answers on what would fit best on Vagabonds.
They re all kind of your kids and you need someone from the outside to say, This kid is cuter, or This kid is smarter. He ll tell me what he thinks is a good performance or good song. And that s mainly what Chris was there for: a vibe and a positivity.
The result is a striking disc with a wealth of gorgeous harmony vocals from a group of singers that included Susannah Hoffs of the Bangles, Jenny Louis of Rilo Kiley and the Chapin Sisters. Their voices blend seamlessly with Louris, giving the songs a country-gospel edge.
Louris left Toledo after graduating from St. John s in the early 70s and started writing songs while he was attending the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He met Olson, who had formed the Jayhawks, in 1985 and was asked to join the band, which went on to record seven studio albums and serve as a crucial step in the evolution of roots music.
With Olson s and Louris harmonies and emphasis on complex, metaphorical lyrics, the band represents the crucial link between the Eagles and any number of mid- 90s roots rockers. Olson left the band after about 10 years, partly to care for his wife, singer Victoria Williams, who has multiple sclerosis.
Over the ensuing years, Louris has recorded with the Jayhawks and worked with a number of other artists. He wrote four songs with the Dixie Chicks for their Taking the Long Way album, provided background vocals for Williams, Counting Crows, and Black Crowes (among others), and produced albums for several artists.
All of this work informs his solo work, Louris said, but only tangentially. He said he tends to write about issues that affect him directly, which helps explain the warm, thoughtful tone of Vagabonds.
I don t find myself writing about a teenage kind of love affair or a great time we re going to have at this party tonight, he said. I tend to look at what I find is the beauty in the world and also the darkness, and it s that weird struggle to be happy. And I guess I have more time than some people to sit around and think about it.
He s currently on tour in Europe, but has no plans to play this area, noting wryly that his brand of Americana has never been a big draw in cities like Toledo. But he does give his old alma mater a shout-out.
I m sorry I ve never played Toledo, but I ve never been asked. I turned my back on the Glass City and went to Minnesota and I don t expect them to build me a shrine, he said, before adding: Go Titans.
Contact Rod Lockwood at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.