One sign of a truly great artist is the ability to make an album of Grammy winning quality when already several years into a recording career, which itself included significant solo success, as well as with another major recording artist, and also a band with whom they first recorded in their early teens. In 2011 Alison Krauss and Union Station released ‘Paper Airplane’, a full seven years after their previous release ‘Lonely Runs Both Ways.’ ‘Paper Airplane’ would go on to win that year’s Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Album.
Krauss first began recording with Union Station in 1985 and has since more or less alternated between solo and band recordings, notwithstanding her superb collaborations with Robert Plant. The band, consisting of Dan Tyminski who takes lead vocals on a number of tracks, as well as acoustic guitar and mandolin; Ron Block on acoustic guitar and banjo; Jerry Douglas, renowned dobro player; and Barry Bales on upright bass, are all accomplished musicians and the fit with Krauss’s delicate soprano vocal and her exceptional fiddle ability is nigh on bluegrass perfect. In addition to this superb set up and a stunning collection of songs (more later) the album was also impeccably mixed and engineered by Mike Shipley, as it went on to win another Grammy, that of Best Engineered Album. All the ingredients for a classic, then.
Songs on the album lean toward the melancholy, the emotional, with heartbreak and goodbyes and grim times – the Depression, anyone? – thrown in for good measure. The line up of writers is pretty stellar, and includes Lori McKenna, Chris Stapleton, Alison’s brother Viktor, Jackson Browne, Aoife O’Donovan, and even our very own Richard Thompson. One of the album’s most recognised songs is ‘Dust Bowl Children’ written by Pete Rowan, telling of what life was like living through the depressed times of the long droughts of the 30s, which devastated farms across the South. Lead is sung by Tyminski, whose tone and phrasing is similar to that used on ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ from ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and is an absolute joy. Tyminski also takes the lead on another popular track ‘Bonita and Bill Butler’, a swashbuckling tale of a Louisiana ship and the adventures of her crew.
McKenna’s ‘My Love Follows You Where You Go’ gets the full bluegrass treatment – what else? – and Jackson Browne’s beautiful ‘My Opening Farewell’ closes the album in such a sublime way it almost hurts…..”there’s a train every day/ leaving either way.” But perhaps the standout track among so many standouts is Richard Thompson’s ‘Dimming of the Day’, a song that has been recorded by dozens of artists, probably because the tale of unrequited love has never been told in such a heartbreaking way. Krauss herself has said it’s one of the greatest songs for a woman to sing, adding, “It’s just the purest, most clearly stated story about that place where a woman has lost love and where you don’t want to admit to being that broken.” Says it all, really.
So the stars aligned… gifted experienced musicians and fabulous vocalists pull together a brilliantly curated canon of songs, all expertly mixed and engineered into what would go on to become a classic album, critically acclaimed on release and highly successful commercially. An album that has stood the test of time and will continue to do so for many moons to come.