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‘True Blue’ Minnesotan: the passive-aggressive artistry of Gary Louris

Gary Louris performing “True Blue” on The Current.

True Blue,” the opening song on “Vagabonds” – the February 2008 release that is the one and only solo album by Gary Louris –  is one of the best things Louris has ever written. That’s no mean feat when you consider all the tunes Louris has composed for his old band The Jayhawks, the four numbers he landed on the Grammy-nominated Dixie Chicks disc in 2006, the nine other songs on “Vagabonds,” and his varied contributions to more modest side projects and film soundtracks. Faithful to its title, “True Blue” unfolds as a spare and elegant credo for a moral life, with a weave of woody string instruments to match its bucolic imagery.

But listen closely and there’s the slightest rustle of discontent, a calm frustration that delicately frays the narrative. Keeping it simple by hewing to the verities of goodness isn’t so simple after all.

Classic Minnesota character personified
“True Blue” reminds me all over again that – unlike that perverse rascal Paul Westerberg, or the strum and howl of Husker Du, or the black-and-purple hedonism of Prince, or even the spastic savant memoirs of the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn – the Jayhawks, but especially Gary Louris, come closest to personifying the literate, folksy, passive-aggressive character of classic Minnesota. It’s the way “True Blue” renders this exquisite sonic and lyrical landscape, yet still finds a subtle place to tuck its lament. Louris’s desire for emotional accuracy is matched by his desire not to make a fuss.

“I think most artists have a hard time following their own advice,” Louris says by phone from Toronto, where he is “helping someone put together a record,” having already produced one Juno-nominated disc for the Sadies last year. “They come up with these beautiful messages and you find out they themselves are tortured and don’t live by their credo. It’s never pretty to talk about aging and finding your faith, but the longer you don’t have answers, the heavier it gets.”

Candor extends to the personal
What’s admirable about Louris is that his extraordinary candor isn’t limited to existential “artist” questions, but more visceral, tangible things, like his self-regard and the current trajectory of his career. For example, he says putting out a solo record “is something I felt I needed to do. I feel like a professional musician for first time in my life.

“At same time, having numerous extensions of yourself” – The Jayhawks, the local supergroup Golden Smog, and now Gary Louris – “may be healthy for your work but it can be confusing to your audience. It would be much easier to call things, ‘The Jayhawks,’ because that is a known brand name. The number of people who come to my shows [now] is nothing compared to those who came to the Jayhawks. I expected [a drop off], but I didn’t expect it to be quite so severe.”

Yet the experience “legitimizes me in my own mind. I always thought ‘I’m good, but I need to have these people around me, the crew and a sound system.’ It is much scarier to play in front of 10 people in a room – especially if they are relatives – instead of 50,000 faceless people.”

The crowd for his solo acoustic gig at the Guthrie next Monday night (7:30, $25) is likely to be something in between: dozens, perhaps hundreds, of friends, family and supportive strangers. There are two songs from “Vagabonds” Louris says he almost always plays: “True Blue” and a gospel-inflected song entitled “To Die a Happy Man,” which sounds a lot like Paul Simon. After that, well, anything goes.

“There is a lot of music in one form or another I’ve done for the Dixie Chicks or Jayhawks or Golden Smog and most of “Vagabonds,” which is the first record I’ve ever done where I don’t feel like there is a single dog in the bunch. And there is new stuff I’ve been working on. The problem is that I kind of need a cane to pull me offstage. They tell me it’s not good show business, you always want to leave them wanting more. I’ll try and keep myself to two hours. But I always thought that if people get tired of it they can leave.” Meanwhile, expect a smattering of “special guests” to come and go from the stage.

Ex-Jayhawk Mark Olson won’t be among them, although “Ready for the Flood,” a record Louris and Olson recorded together just before the sessions for “Vagabonds,” will be released in about two weeks. The partnership is significant because the two had a bit of a falling out after Louris and the rest of the band soldiered on with the Jayhawks “brand name” after Olson left the group a few years ago.

“Mark and I are past the eggshell period,” Louris says. “We are friends, and things are not quite so sensitive. I love the record and am proud of it, but I’ll wait to do those songs with Mark because it would be weird not to – the chemistry is important. We did those songs together more intensively, whereas before, when we were both with the Jayhawks, it was more, ‘What have you got?’

“Right now, [‘Ready for the Flood’] is easily as much of a focus as my solo work, and I think we’ll eventually tour behind it. If the audience can connect with us it will be fine. Mark can do his solo record, I can do mine, and then we can meet up and do this other one together.”

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