— The private, videotaped performance of six songs from "Paper Airplane," released last Tuesday, has wrapped and the invited audience has left the main room at Oceanway Studios. Alison Krauss & Union Station are in the midst of the still-photo and video-liners phase inherent to launching a new recording. By this point she's used to the routine.
It's hard to believe the angelic-voiced fiddler who's not yet 40 is 25 years into a career that has seen her win 26 Grammy Awards — including 2008's all-genre record and album of the year for "Raising Sand," her collaboration with Robert Plant — and bring bluegrass to places it's never been. Humble to a fault, she is quick to deflect compliments.
Upon completing the promotional chores, she and dobro-lap steel-vocalist Jerry Douglas, guitarist-lead vocalist Dan Tyminski, banjo-guitarist Ron Block and bassist-vocalist Barry Bales are leaving the now empty studio. A hippie-looking gaffer approaches the songstress and explains they met in North Carolina when her first solo record — 1990's "I've Got That Old Feeling" — was released.
"And I could tell you didn't like it. You were just miserable…," he says. Pressed to explain himself, the man says, "They were trying to make you all glamorous, and…"
"Oh, no," Krauss demurs. "I was fine. We just did it so fast, I didn't have as much time to record, but I cut everything I wanted… and well…"
She smiles. He smiles back, somehow reassured that at the time the young woman, not yet old enough to vote, wasn't being mistreated.
Though Krauss' standards are legendarily high and her discomfort with ego-driven displays well-known, she seems to be a woman at peace with her place in music and the world. Indeed, the five Grammys that "Raising Sand" won seems to have eased the pressure on the Illinois-born musician rather than raising it.
"It made me want to step away more than I had in the past," says the detail-driven Krauss later, in her Victorian-feeling living room on a leafy tree lined street in Nashville. "Kind of taking your hands off the wheel a little more and letting things happen.... I didn't take the tapes home to listen to this time; I didn't dig at it as much…
"I think you translate emotion better when you take your hands off."
Emotion is a good word for the 11-song cycle, which includes her takes on Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day" and Jackson Browne's "My Opening Farewell," as well as the mournful title track about love's fragile, fatal reality. For a woman who's made leaving, yearning and aching a signature, this is a full immersion meditation on loss.
Says Tyminski, the aggressive singer who voiced George Clooney's "Man of Constant Sorrow" in "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?," of the songs: "Sometimes we'd get halfway through and have to stop because they were so emotional. She'd be moved to tears, and we'd have to stop and gather ourselves."
Part of the melancholy Krauss draws from is a turbulent time in her own life, but equally present was a string of migraine headaches shortly after recording began. "Physically, I felt so badly, I couldn't tell what I was feeling..."
Though it had been six years and the five members of Union Station were ready, they suspended recording, waiting for Krauss to get better. As Tyminski remembers, "In a situation like that, you feel so helpless…"
"Physically, it was a really down thing," Krauss admits. "I hated stopping. We'd waited so long to go in … and I was mad I didn't have all the songs, but I was feeling so bad, I couldn't even know (what was good)." Bedridden from the pain, she focused on getting through it — and finding more songs that captured how she felt.
The turning point came when longtime song-source Robert Castleman invited Krauss out to his house. "He said his cupboard was bare, but to come out and talk to him, tell him about my life.... When I got there, he had a twinkle in his eye and said, 'I've got a melody.'" It was "Paper Airplane," and Krauss was immediately taken.
"It felt like things you'd say in a conversation, because he knows me. The chorus? I couldn't sing it, because it was so beautiful. And from there, it all started to come together."
Although some songs explore the harrowing nature of love failing, there are also songs that reflect the hard times of working people. Tyminski's "Dust Bowl Children" and "Bonita and Bill Butler" inhabit the difficult nature of surviving in lean times.
"Alison likes when I sing about things where I have no control: famine, wars, whatever! Just take a breath and let it all come out," Tyminski explains. "While you're singing, you have to live it."
Union Station's sound has expanded too. For a band that's made bluegrass a national reality, Krauss and the band have almost grown beyond labels. Says Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Foundation, "She's won pop Grammys, folk, southern Gospel, country, Americana. There is no music beyond her, yet, she never loses her grounding in Appalachia, or sense of who she is."
Give Krauss a compliment, though, and she looks down. Mention her stats and she changes the subject. But when it comes to music — as "Paper Airplane" demonstrates — the quest is everything. "Things change as you change, but I look forward to it. Some things feel really good to sing: there's a physical aspect, but there's more to it — a deeper place you go to," says Krauss, before adding: "Being in the studio is a really romantic time. The fact it's forever and there's so much to find out about this song you're singing. You get to spend so much time with it, letting the layers reveal themselves, which I think happens if you give it room."