Off the Charts

Alison Krauss: Reinventing Bluegrass, Reanimating Country

For many people, the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou in 2000 served as an introduction to the multitalented Alison Krauss. Her singing of “Down to the Valley to Pray” turned the film’s most visually striking scenes into an utterly breathtaking experience. Yet Krauss already had many years of experience under her belt before giving that angelic performance.

Born in 1971, the Illinois native started violin lessons when she was five and quickly fell in love with bluegrass. She won her first fiddling contest at age 13, and in the subsequent decades she’s continued to build on that promise. As of this writing, Krauss has won 27 Grammy Awards, the third highest total ever (after Georg Solti and Quincy Jones).

Her recording debut came thanks to her brother Viktor Krauss, two years her elder, a bass player who cut his first album in 1985, calling it Different Strokes. The siblings are joined by Bruce Weiss on guitar and Jim Hoiles, also on fiddle.

The lineup of tracks consists of traditional bluegrass and Irish instrumental tunes. A reel called “Grey Eagle” gets a downright wild treatment from little sister Alison, who uses it as a starting point for improvisations from one end of the fingerboard to the other, featuring some perilous high-speed string-crossings.

 

Krauss made her own solo debut two years later with Too Late to Cry (1987). Another bass player, John Pennell, is an overriding presence on that album, writing most of the songs. Pennell was soon to become the bassist in Krauss’ band, Union Station.

One of the Pennell songs on Too Late to Cry is an upbeat number called “In Your Eyes” (no connection to the Peter Gabriel hit). Krauss moves seamlessly from fiddle to voice, singing in a clear and facile tone that doesn’t yet have the breathiness and depth that would come to define it.

 

By 1989, the band Union Station was up and running and ready to make its first album, Two Highways. Besides Krauss and Pennell, the group included Jeff White on guitar and Mike Harman on banjo (both of whom also sang), with an assist by Jerry Douglas on dobro. Douglas eventually joined permanently.

From its inception, the goal of Union Station seems to have been to apply bluegrass techniques and sensibilities to new music. They started out with a strong leap toward that goal. Krauss displays her intention to be an ensemble player rather than the star in this Todd Rakestraw song, “Lord Don’t Forsake Me,” with Jeff White on lead vocals.

 

By the time Union Station released its second album, Every Time You Say Goodbye, in 1992, the band was gaining a solid foothold in the country charts, hitting a respectable No. 75. (The album title does not refer to Cole Porter standard “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” but to a new song by Pennell.) This success coincided with across-the-board personnel changes, excepting Krauss herself.

The new banjo player, Ron Block, wrote the song “Who Can Blame You.” It doesn’t have the same level of originality as Pennell’s work, but it’s a nice retro-style country song that defied the 1990s tendency toward tingeing country songs with elements of rock and pop. (Soon those “tinges” would grow to the point where there was little country left in country.)

 

While Union Station has always been interested in stretching the borders of bluegrass, Krauss returned to a more traditional environment for1994’s I Know Who Holds Tomorrow. This gospel-soaked album is a collaboration with The Cox Family bluegrass band, giving Krauss a chance to remind listeners of her bona fides, both in fiddle and singing style.

She fits seamlessly into the Cox traditional country sound as she sings the gospel number “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” Keep an ear out for the nice mandolin solo by Adam Steffey.

 

In case Krauss and the members of Union Station had any doubt they were heading in the right direction, their 1997 album So Long So Wrong won three Grammys and was credited by critics as no less than a reinvention of bluegrass.

To hear what all the fuss is about, you need listen no further than the title track, which opens the album, a song written by Patrick Brayer and Walden Dahl. Despite the song’s contemporary structure and harmony, the bluegrass-style rhythm acoustic guitars, mandolin, and banjo plus overlaid fiddle line feel integral to it.

 

In large part thanks to the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? the year before, Krauss and Union Station found themselves with a mega-hit in New Favorite (2001), their ninth record together. It won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. Its biggest single, which also won a Grammy, was “The Lucky One.”

One of the album’s gems is the jazz-flavored “I’m Gone,” a dark and unusual melody by Eric Kaz and Wendy Waldman. The haunting dobro and acoustic guitar solos are the ideal reply to Krauss’ sorrowful singing.

 

Another Grammy for Album of the Year was garnered by Raising Sand, Krauss’ 2007 collaboration with Robert Plant. T-Bone Burnett, who also produced the O Brother CD, helmed the project and helped choose the songs. The duo found they had a perfect vocal chemistry, and their cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Gone, Gone, Gone” won a Grammy for vocal collaboration.

There are a lot of great tracks, but my favorite is Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’,” which opens with Burnett playing distorted guitar chords, matched by Krauss’ crunching fiddle bow as Plant gives the vocal line a light, contrasting touch.

 

Krauss’ most recent recording is Windy City (2017), a collection of covers of classic songs, chosen with producer Buddy Cannon. They include country standards like “Gentle on My Mind,” made famous by Glen Campbell, and Roger Miller’s “River in the Rain.”

The list of 40 or so musicians in the credits is a clue for what to expect: big, lush arrangements. No bare-bones traditional sounds here. But because these songs are country music’s version of the American Songbook, the standards-style orchestration works.

That, and the fact that Krauss keeps a purity in her voice that pushes the velvet orchestral drapery into the background. Nowhere is this more evident than in her recording of “All Alone Am I,” which was a hit for Brenda Lee in 1962. Krauss’ version is a little slower than Lee’s, a few pitches higher, and delivered with a kind of stunned sadness that turns a pop torch song into a Shakespearean tragic soliloquy.

 

While there’s been no new album since Windy City, that’s hardly out of character for the careful and steadfast Krauss. Popping out a record every year is not her thing. If you want to hear her live, though, you’re in luck. Catch her April through June on her 2020 tour. Details here:

https://alisonkrauss.com/pages/events

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.