WINDY CITY - ALISON KRAUSS
LCM ALBUM OF THE MONTH - MARCH 2017
Release Date: 3rd March, 2017
Genre: Americana and Bluegrass
Band: Brent Mason and Richard Bennett (Guitars), drummer Chad Cromwell (Drums/Percussion), John Hobbs (Piano), Mike Johnson (Pedal steel player) and Barry Bales (Upright bass)
Record Label: Capitol Records
Before I start I must confess that I'm a huge fan of this lady and her music. Alison Krauss has one of the purest vocals in the music industry and currently has an incredible 27 Grammy awards to her name. This new solo album 'Windy City' has been a long while in the making, but it has certainly been worth the wait. It's her first effort away from her band Union Station since Raising Sand and her debut album for Capitol Records. The album features Alison performing 10 classic songs that she carefully selected with producer Buddy Cannon. Already receiving much critical acclaim, this is certain to be one of the Country albums of the year.
With it's heavenly soprano vocals, superb arrangements and highly skilled playing, the album has much to enjoy. It's central themes are of heartache and sadness.
Following 'Raising Sand', her platinum 2007 album with Robert Plant that won six GRAMMY Awards including Album of the Year, and 2011’s 'Paper Airplane' with her longtime collaborators Union Station, which won the GRAMMY Award for Best Bluegrass Album and topped Billboard’s Folk, Country and Bluegrass charts, Alison began to feel the tug of inspiration.
“Usually it’s just all songs first,” she says. “It was the first time I’d ever not had songs picked out, and it was just about a person.” That person was veteran Nashville producer Buddy Cannon. Alison had always enjoyed the occasional recording sessions she did for Buddy. But something else happened when she came in to sing her lead lines on Hank Cochran’s “Make The World Go Away” for Jamey Johnson’s 2012 album Living For A Song. “That was absolutely the moment,” she says. “Wow! Buddy really makes me want to do a good job.”
Buddy has used his playing, songwriting and production skills to bring out the best in a wide variety of artists since the early 70’s. He has written award-winning and chart-topping songs for artists such as Vern Gosdin, Mel Tillis, George Strait, Glen Campbell, George Jones and Don Williams. He has also won the ACM’s “Producer Of The Year” award and produced albums for Willie Nelson, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Alabama, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Chesney, and even Merle Haggard’s final solo album.
At the beginning Alison thought the songs chosen should be older than herself. “I wanted it to be earlier than I remembered,” she explains. And although the two of them subsequently decided to relax those boundaries just a little, it was only to allow in songs that somehow had the same kind of feeling as the others. Mostly, it turned out, these were songs of heartache, but of a distinct and particular kind.
What she and Buddy have created is an unusual and invigorating chimera – an album suffused with sadness that somehow rarely sounds that way. “It’s almost like you didn’t know it was sad,” Alison says, “because it doesn’t sound weak. It doesn’t have a pitiful part to it, where so many sad songs do. But these don’t. And I love that about it. I love that there’s strength underneath there. That whatever those stories are, they didn’t destroy. That that person made it right through it. I love that.”
Alison inhabits – and liberates – the very essence that makes each of the songs eternal. While they span different eras and musical genres, there is a unifying sensibility. Some of the songs are familiar – like “Gentle On My Mind,” a signature song of Glen Campbell’s, and “You Don’t Know Me” which was a hit for Eddy Arnold and Ray Charles. Others were lesser known, like Willie Nelson’s “I Never Cared For You” and “All Alone Am I,” originally recorded by Brenda Lee. Some were songs she’d never heard before; some were songs she’d known nearly her whole life, particularly those she brought in from the bluegrass world. Alison had no idea when she suggested to Buddy that they record “Dream of Me,” a song she recalled from childhood, that he had written it. It took some persuasion, but he agreed to sing backup on the track, along with his daughter Melonie Cannon.
But it wasn't all straight-forward nearly 30 years into her career, the one-time fiddle-playing child prodigy turned multiplatinum star had lost her ethereal soprano. “I’d go onstage and it would shut down. In the studio my throat would close up,” she said. “That was a pain in the neck. Literally.” In 2013, she was diagnosed with a condition called dysphonia (a general term that encompasses several vocal issues including hoarseness) and forced to cancel several performances with her bluegrass band Union Station.
Frustrated, she sought out a voice teacher, Ron Browning; her sessions with him were “like getting a shot in the arm about singing again.” After working with Browning, Alison was able to finish Windy City, her first solo record in 18 years and a project she started three-and-a-half years ago.
Windy City was inspired by two different sources: the photographs of Bob Richardson and producer Buddy Cannon. She’d sung harmony on records Buddy produced for artists including Jamey Johnson and realized that she wanted to make an album with him at the helm.
The album begins with the 1963 Brenda Lee hit 'Losing You', one of the lead single. Gentle brushed percussion and piano complement Alison's heavenly vocals. It builds wonderfully adding pedal steel.
It's into full honky tonk mode for 'It's Goodbye And So Long To You'. A fun break-up song with wonderful interplay between electric guitar, pedal steel, piano, very catchy percussion and Dixieland horns. It's a song that, while first recorded by The Osborne Brothers with Mac Wiseman in 1979, sounds decades older and features both Alison on fiddle, background vocals by Dan Tyminski and Hank Williams Jr. and a brass section making its appearance for a dash of old New Orleans.
'Windy City' was first recorded by bluegrass duo The Osborne Brothers over 45 years ago. This new heartfelt love song cover is just pure class. Timeless and majestic. Hobbs’ saloon piano provides a perfect bridge to the honky tonk waltzing title track, another from the Osborne’s repertoire, here from 1973 with pedal steel echoing the heartache about the singer’s search for her errant lover, lured by the bright lights of Chicago the "Windy City".
Willie Nelson’s deliciously ironic 'I Never Cared For You' with it's latin percussion rhythms intoxicates and has a feeling of warmth and sunshine. Suzanne and Sidney Cox harmonising on the largely unaccompanied intro, the arrangement retaining the original’s border feel, but going easier on the jazzier shades. Excellent guitar solo.
The piano led 'River In The Rain' is a Roger Miller-penned song for the 1985 Tony-winning Broadway musical "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn".
A piece of pure bluegrass Honky Tonk 'Dream Of Me' gets the toes tapping. Alison first heard this performed live by bluegrass duo Jim and Jesse back in the early 80s, unaware it had been written by Buddy Cannon, who’s joined by daughter Melonie on backing vocals.
Next up is a classy John Hartford cover 'Gentle On My Mind', first made famous by Glen Campbell. The song is at the cross section of Country and Pop. It's lyrics even describing how the music should be “You’re movin’ on the back roads by the rivers of my memory....and for hours you’re just gentle on my mind.” Watch out of the narrative twist in the last verse, when the narrator is revealed to be not just a wanderer but literally homeless, haunting train-yards and barrel fires with a coal-dark beard and a dirty hat.
'All Alone Am' is a 1962 Brenda Lee classic, originally written by Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis for the film "The Island of the Brave" and given English lyrics by Arthur Altman. The arrangement has a slower, dreamier pace with an excellent string section and a lovely steel solo by Johnson.
Bluegrass classic “Poison Love” has a calypso pulse that seems to defy gravity. Featuring a catchy snare beat and background vocals from Jamey Johnson and Dan Tyminski, this bouncy dance floor track is probably the most obscure, being a Bill Monroe B-side from 1951.
This excellent album ends with Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold's 'You Don't Know Me', slow waltzing big hit for Ray Charles and one which sees Alison give arguably one of the best vocal performances to date. Stunning and classic
'Windy City' is a lush and timeless-sounding album that’s held together by excellent arrangements, high quality musicianship and Alison's gossamer vocals. An underlying thread of melancholy runs through the record, but Alison didn’t notice a theme until she was done recording. “I thought the record had loss, but it was still strong,” she said. “It was a sad record, but it wasn’t desperate.”