AmericanA to Z – Alison Krauss (and Union Station)

In the first run through the alphabet of Americana we focused on some artists who weren’t particularly big names. For the start of this pass at the A to Z we are looking at someone with 27 Grammy Awards and a stack of gold and platinum records. Alison Krauss started recording with Union Station in 1987 at the age of 16. Initially she enjoyed patchy success with her early singles and albums. The 1995 compilation ‘Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection’ was her breakthrough, with The Foundations ‘Baby, Now That I’ve Found You’ and ‘When You Say Nothing at All’, originally a hit for Keith Whitley pushing the album to the upper reaches of the country charts.

It was the combination of videos on country music television and what has proved to be a knack for finding suitable songs to cover that established Krauss as an artist, with and without Union Station. That same compilation had songs from the Beatles and Little Feat, while subsequent recordings have included Jackson Browne, Richard Thompson, and Brenda Lee.

Krauss also surrounds herself with collaborators who contribute songwriting as well as a range of instrumental skills. Her solo records often feature the core members of Union Station, particularly Ron Block and bassist Barry Bales, as well as a cast of other well-known players. Her album with Robert Plant, ‘Raising Sand’ was in many ways also a collaboration with producer T Bone Burnett, who selected the songs and the players. The fact that sessions for a second album stalled, along with interview comments by the singers, suggest that Burnett was the dominant force on the record.

The most recent Union Station album ‘Paper Airplane’ from 2011 was a far more collaborative effort with lead vocals from Dan Tyminski on two songs, reflecting his own star status in the Bluegrass community which started, with the Coen Brothers film ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ His update of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ has featured in Union Station shows for some years, and the soundtrack, featuring Krauss, Gillian Welch, and others has influenced the direction of much roots music ever since.

What is Krauss’ appeal? Her voice can, on less strong material, sound a bit saccharine and one dimensional. However, on the best songs, such as ‘Dimming of the Day‘ or ‘Every Time You Say Goodbye‘  “angelic” doesn’t begin to cover it. Her music combines the traditional and modern in a way that makes her accessible to the Adult Contemporary market as well as the Bluegrass and Country charts. She is at home on both Austin City Limits and The Grand Ole Opry. She is a strong enough fiddle player to keep up with virtuoso players like Block and Tyminski, and while she rarely writes herself, the song choices for her albums reflect a  keen ear for a hit. She helped kick start “Newgrass” including Nickel Creek, who she produced two albums for. So overall, she has made a considerable contribution to popularising Bluegrass, as well as producing some of the most listenable music of the last 25 years or so. If you have thought “a bit commercial and pop” give her a listen, I’m sure you will find something that works for you.

The Career: 7 Albums with Union Station, 5 solo albums, 4 compilations, 3 collaborative albums. 27 Grammy awards and lots of appearances on other artists albums and shows.

Key Releases:So Long, So Wrong’ from 1997 and ‘Paper Airplane’ from 2011 are the key Union Station albums. Solo: ‘Forget About It’ is her most pop and ‘Windy City’ a collection of classic bluegrass and country songs. The ‘O Brother…’ soundtrack is also worth investigating.

Author: Tim Martin

I spend some of my time in Clevedon (Somerset) and some in Crianlarich (Scotland), but most of it on the road in between listening to Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty and Over The Rhine, or anything else that makes the miles go by quicker.

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