Years ago, my buddy Gerard Spence handed me a cassette of Alison Krauss’s collection, Now That I’ve Found You, and said something like, you might not think you’re going to like this, but you will. Having grown up in rural Missississippi and Alabama, bluegrass and gospel music (and the intersection of those two) were certainly a part of my musical foundation. In the mid-1990’s, however, I didn’t own a bluegrass cassette. The only gospel I heard was at church or when the musicians in my family got together to sing a bit.
For a lot of people, including me, Now That I’ve Found You presented a turning point in their musical journey. As we found out, Alison Krauss was sent by the Good Lord to save those of us fixated on the Devil’s Music from a world without bluegrass. She sang for our sins of obliviousness and ignorance to the many versions of that great American music invented by Bill Monroe. Our sins were forgiven as we listened to her beautiful voice, her fiddle, and the great musicians around her. Besides all that, I was hooked by a combination of two things: a reconnection with sounds already imprinted on my music-processing neurons (bluegrass and gospel) and the simple fact that a lot of Alison’s stuff rocked (try to sit still listening to Oh, Atlanta, for example – Oh, Alison, I hear you calling, still). On later listenings, the style and lyrics of When You Say Nothing At All moved me toward something different (and probably should have shown me where all this was going). To say that I fell in love with Alison Krauss in the 95-96 timeframe is a bit of an understatement.
I have seen Alison Krauss and Union Station several times over the years. Last year, they played only a few dates, but I saw two of them. One of those was The Hangout Festival down in Gulf Shores. No new Union Station music out since 2004, this was their first gig together in months, so I didn’t really expect much out of the show. Wrong. Standing in the sand on the Gulf of Mexico, I was blown away by how strong she is and how amazing Union Station is. Later in 2010 we saw them in Telluride and, again, they were great. Alison rules the stage with her voice, presence and dry sense of humor. (As an aside, if you haven’t seen them live, you should know that she cross-examines a different band member during each time the band is tuning, which is after every song it seems, teasing them about something that happened in their personal lives, during sound check, on the bus or whatever.) We all know Dan Tyminski has other gigs and could easily front his own group full time, but he remains the mainstay of Union Station. He gets his feature songs each night, and the audience isn’t complaining. The Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn is a great tune and gets almost as big of a reaction as Man Of Constant Sorrow. Jerry Douglas is just Jerry Douglas. Say dobro and two out of three people who know what that is will say Jerry Douglas. Take his sound away and everything changes. Ron Block and Barry Bales are all-stars, too.
Over the last decade and a half, Alison and her friends have introduced me to their friends, and they to theirs, and so on. I’m now at Telluride just about every summer. Bluegrass, or at least some form of it, is a pretty big part of my music life.
To be fair, my continuing love affair with Alison Krauss is not without a bump or two along the way. I still dig her stuff (and by her, I mean her and Union Station, where appropriate). Forget About It, The Lucky One, Stay, Let Me Touch You For a While (still blush a little on that one) are among the newer songs that I think are great. I love it when Tyminski sings and/or when the band plays traditional and upbeat stuff. I’m not as big on the Alison songs that are a little less distinguishable that find their way into each album. Some of those songs are excellent for playing while having a glass of wine with your significant other or playing while having a glass of wine as you consider why your significant other is somewhere other than with you, but there’s a pop, non-roots feel to some of them that doesn’t always get me where I need to be.
Truth is, I’d like to see Alison Krauss and Union Station record a CD of only bluegrass standards or even songs that sound like bluegrass standards. Their version of something like Steve Earle’s bluegrass album, The Mountain, would really be great. But I have to keep telling myself: “Self, you’re not the target market here. And A.K./U.S. don’t really think a lot about what you’d prefer.” I don’t answer back, because I read somewhere that means you’re crazy, and I certainly don’t want to be crazy. But if I were going to answer back, my self would say, “Well, I don’t care what you (I?) say! I’d like to hear them do a CD of Bill Monroe covers.” Enough. While I’m fussing, I didn’t dig the (admittedly groundbreaking and important) Raising Sand project so much, just because it didn’t feel like they were on equal footing. Robert Plant has a way of sucking up all the air in the room and Alison Krauss’s voice has a way of wrapping around anything good, and it seemed he took advantage of that a bit. It worked well for them and certainly was good for Americana music, so it was a great combo, but I suppose I was still waiting for the retro-Union Station project described above and/or pouting about not getting my way. Or maybe I was just waiting for any new Union Station studio project (seven years is a long time).
So there’s a new album coming out next week. You can stream it in its entirety at NPR. They call it Paper Airplane, and it is a fine album. It is not in the total-return-to-bluegrass vein that I will continue to hope for, but it is very good and it does have some bluegrass songs. According to the NPR piece on Paper Airplane, the first try at recording an album was nixed by Alison on the grounds that they didn’t have the material they needed. Robert Lee Castleman was brought in and the title song was born. I’m not sure of the origin of all the songs, but all the material on the final product is solid, in my view.
With the exception of the tunes sung by Dan Tyminski (3 of 11 songs), the CD has a heavy, sad quality about it. If you listen to words of the Tyminski-sung tunes, it doesn’t get much brighter. After only two listens, two of my three favorite Alison songs are both covers, and both sad: The Dimming Of The Day, which is so sad we are told that the band couldn’t get through the first play through, and Opening Farewell, the Jackson Browne tune from his first album (titled My Opening Farewell on that album, but the NPR list shows it as Opening Farewell). The Jackson Browne tune is about the end of a relationship, “He turns from the window to me, sad smile his apology, sad eyes reaching to the door.” You can imagine Alison singing these words, I bet, and I can imagine a new generation of folks discovering this song that I first really heard a few beers into a night back in my first year of college after breaking up with my high school girlfriend (for about the third time). What are you going to do with all this sadness? You’re going to listen to it, because it is good. In case you think I’m overstating the sadness of the CD, you should know that Krauss admitted to NPR that the songs on the CD “‘represent a trying time that has to end.'”
Dan Tyminski and the band wear it out in On The Outside Looking In, which, as of now, is my favorite of his songs. I say as of now because I will eventually come to settle on a “new favorite” (pardon the A.K./U.S. pun) of Tyminski’s three songs and of Alison’s songs, too. Even now, I’m relistening as I write this, and I’m reconsidering whether Lie Awake is still in my top three of the Alison songs or whether it has been overtaken by My Love Follows You Where You Go. Time will tell, I suppose.
Paper Airplane is on Rounder Records and will be released April 12.
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