Alison Krauss goes solo again on ‘Windy City’
If Alison Krauss has learned one thing along the way to becoming the musician laden with more Grammy Awards than any other woman in pop history, it’s to trust her instincts.
So when her intuition told her it was time to step away from her longtime band Union Station to make only her second solo album in two decades, the just-released “Windy City,” she went with it.
She also embraced her gut feeling that the project should not only center on songs of romantic longing and heartache, but a very specific strain of what might be called second-generation melancholy.
That’s why she homed in for the most part on songs written before she was born 45 years ago in Decatur, Ill., many of which she learned as a child bluegrass fiddle prodigy growing up in the Midwest.
As she elaborated in a recent interview, she was aiming to tap memories of songs filtered through others’ experience — parents, grandparents and friends.
“There’s something about that that’s very powerful,” she said, “when you have a memory, a sound in your head that comes from your parents’ recollection. I’ve always loved that, a sense of a different kind of life that we didn’t really experience but we still recognize that it has gone, that it has passed us by.”
That manifests on “Windy City” in 10 songs that span such country and pop classics as John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” and Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me.” There are less widely known numbers as well, including Elmer Laird’s “Poison Love,” a song popularized in bluegrass circles by Bill Monroe and the duo Johnnie & Jack.
In addition to her much lauded skills as a nuanced vocalist and a dexterous instrumentalist, Krauss has occasionally produced recordings for other artists, including avant-bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, country singer-songwriter Alan Jackson and the bluegrass band the Cox Family.
But she largely checked her producer’s hat at the door of the Nashville studio when she and collaborator Buddy Cannon set to work, although she conceded that if there was an element of a session she wasn’t completely happy with, “I’m not going to not say something. But mostly what I was interested in was doing what Buddy liked.”
Cannon is best known for his production work with Kenny Chesney, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire, George Jones and Willie Nelson, and for country hits he has written or co-written for George Strait, Billy Ray Cyrus, Mel Tillis and Vern Gosdin.
It was another instinctual response that prompted her to ask Cannon to produce a full album with her, after they’d worked together on a duet she sang in 2012 with Jamey Johnson on the country classic “Make the World Go Away.”
“I’d worked for him a bunch in the past, so I was well aware of him,” she said. “But I always sang harmony — I never sang lead for him.”
“It’s interesting that of all the people there are in Nashville, he is the one whose nickname is ‘Ears,’” she said of Cannon. “To have that kind of innate instinct about what works and what doesn’t work, I would love to understand it. ‘What makes you decide that that [performance] was it?’
“He’s so calm,” she said with a laugh. “I’d say he’s got the same amount of enthusiasm if the house was on fire as he would if he was ordering a burger.”
She also confessed to holding a special place in her heart for pioneering songwriter Cindy Walker, who turned out hit after hit in country music long before it was considered an option for female artists.
“You Don’t Know Me” gave Arnold a Top 10 hit in 1958, went all the way to No. 1 for Mickey Gilley in 1981, and received a broadly influential reading in 1962 by Ray Charles on his boundary-breaking album “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music.”
Though written by a woman, it’s most famously sung by men. Krauss’ version brings back the perspective of a woman’s feelings of romance that she is too reticent to voice.
“You aren’t sure if that’s a one-sided conversation, something going on only in her head, or whether she ends up doing something about it,” Krauss said. “It’s just as heartbreaking either way. … It’s stoicism at its best. It’s very difficult to pull off, when you love so hard.”
“Windy City,” released by Capitol Records, also represents a first for Krauss in that it’s the only album she’s done for a company other than the folk-bluegrass-rooted Rounder Records.
It was Rounder that signed Krauss as a teenager and has released each of her previous 13 solo and Union Station albums, as well as her surprise 2007 collaboration with Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant, “Raising Sand,” which became a runaway pop hit and scored her five of her career total of 27 Grammys.
Why the change at this point in her career, when she could have jumped ship at many points along the line as her star continued rising?
“Boy, that’s an interesting question,” she said. “I hadn’t even grasped that. There were a lot of changes at the label I was with. … It was actually a tough decision, because I have such a connection to those folks at Rounder.
“I never had a record come out anyplace else,” she said. “By no means is my relationship with Rounder over. It’s been an incredible relationship, and it will continue to be.”
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