Gary Louris: Vagabonds

By James Calemine

Gary Louris, co-founder of the Jayhawks, proves songwriting remains his strength. Louris, an outstanding guitarist, concentrates on the flowing word grams of his lyrics amid this sparse, un-electric sound.

Produced by The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, Vagabonds hinges on Louris’ acoustic guitar and lyricism, amazing North Carolina singer/songwriter/guitarist Jonathan Wilson (who also plays bass, organ and banjo on Vagabonds), drummer Otto Hauser, new Black Crowes keyboardist Adam MacDougall and Josh Grunge on pedal steel.

“True Blue” opens the CD in a quiet, cymbal-less sound built around variegated lyrics: “Riches and their thorns/Rumble where they lay/Revealing sparkling secrets/To hold you bring happiness/Your absence sorrow.”

“Omaha Nights” highlights the Laurel Canyon Family Choir, which includes Chris Robinson, Susanna Hoffs (yes, The Bangles), Jenny Lewis, Johnathan Rice, Andy Cabic, Jonathan Wilson and the Beachwood Sparks’ Farmer Dave. On this track, Wilson’s virtuosity accentuates Louris’ soulful question, “Am I growing old in the arms of the wrong lover?”

All ten songs on this 43-minute CD were written by Louris. “To Die A Happy Man” proves a coffeehouse classic with the weeping pedal steel, but the Family Choir adds a gospel sound with MacDougall’s quiet piano cascades. I’d love to hear Merle Haggard sing this one…

This formidable collection of musicians sound like a seasoned band on “Black Grass” with Louris on acoustic and Wilson’s subtle six-string colorings. Hands down, the centerpiece song—“I Wanna Get High”—an ethereal acoustic blues with a bridge the Beatles would envy proves worth the price of this CD. The album is worth purchasing just for this song.

The title track sums up a lonely soul that finds himself/herself in a present moment when a cold realization reveals that the past has evaporated forever. Louris convinces his troubadour inclinations culminate in the lines: “Roll me over/Tell me I’m alive/Shallow breathing/Right between the eyes/Carry on you vagabonds/Everyone’s gone away.” On this one, Chris Robinson’s soulful backup vocals harmonize over a heart-rending pedal steel that reminds of his enduring vocal influence.

“D.C.Blues” emerges as an American soundtrack in a flowing narrative: “It almost seems laughable/It shouldn’t be this hard/I built you this monument/With soldiers standing guard.” Louris carries a spirit on Vagabonds every American feels sooner or later.

The closer, “Meandering”, spins a yarn of a lost soul awakening to the past destruction in the wake of his life: “Seems the faster that I’m running/The more I fall behind/The more we polish our silver/The less it seems to shine.”

Vagabonds operates at the crossroads where the past, present and future collide…