[1 February 2011]
It has recently been announced that Alison Krauss and Union Station—the biggest band in bluegrass music today—will be releasing a new album, Paper Airplane, on April 12th. This news has been greeted with much excitement from fans who have been waiting patiently since Lonely Runs Both Ways (2004) for a new full-length effort. They now eagerly anticipate the record’s release to see what musical paths this veteran group will tread. Will the remarkable critical and commercial success of the 2007 release Raising Sand, Krauss’ creative collaboration with Robert Plant, influence the course of the music Krauss makes with Union Station?
While Krauss has been known for working within the limitations of traditional bluegrass, no matter how far she might push these boundaries, it is interesting to note how much of her artistic success has been due to an apt and diverse song selection. Although Krauss and Union Station fill their set list and album repertoire with traditional bluegrass standards by the likes of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, they mine the fields of many musical genres to turn previously recorded tunes into newgrass masterpieces. Krauss’ past albums have included covers of the Foundations’ “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”, the First Edition’s “But You Know I Love You”, Dan Fogelberg’s “Stars”, Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty”, Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All”, and Shenandoah’s “Just a Ghost in This House”, just to name a few. Union Station often closes its live shows with a particularly rousing, jammy rendition of Bad Company’s “Oh, Atlanta”. Krauss and Plant’s Raising Sand further solidified Krauss’ reputation as a bluegrass artist exceptionally willing to explore unchartered territory. Under the guidance of veteran producer T-Bone Burnett, Krauss and Plant covered tunes by the Everly Brothers, Townes Van Zandt, Gene Clark, and Tom Waits. Notably, Krauss has stated that some of her primary musical influences include not just traditional bluegrass icons like Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, but also figures from the rock and pop worlds, like Journey and Steely Dan.
The hype surrounding the forthcoming release of Paper Airplane, as well as Krauss’ history of compelling song selections, has caused me to think about non-bluegrass tunes that Krauss and company should in fact cover, either on a future studio effort or on the road. Each of these songs, in my mind, would fit Krauss and Union Station’s unique blend of bluegrass traditionalism and progressionist spirit:
#5: Wilco - “Muzzle of Bees”
This quiet, unassuming track from the largely experimental A Ghost is Born (2004) is perfectly compatible with Union Station in its mellow, ballady mode. The catchy melodic line repeated between versus, played on the Wilco record by an electric guitar and piano an octave apart, would sound beautiful when doubled by Ron Block’s acoustic guitar and Jerry Douglas’ dobro. The song’s dynamic range could easily be transferred to Union Station, known for covering a wide palette of emotions within a single tune.
#4: Nanci Griffith - “Once in a Very Blue Moon”
This Austin-based singer-songwriter’s direct, emotional lyrics and tender, fragile voice have Krauss written all over them. The song’s themes of lost love and longing fit in well with such past Union Station tracks as “The Lucky One” and “I Can Let Go Now”. The tune’s harmonies on the chorus could be replicated effectively by Krauss and company.
#3: Sharon Van Etten - “One Day”
Van Etten has established herself as one of the most exciting, consistently interesting singer-songwriters of the past few years. If the electric guitar that forms the rhythmic basis of “One Day” was replaced with a steady, acoustic rhythm, this track could work well for AK&US. The harmony vocal coming on in the second verse could be covered by Union Station stalwart Dan Tyminski. The song’s gentle groove is already in the vein of such Krauss ballads as “Now That I’ve Found You” and “There is a Reason”.
#2: Toad the Wet Sprocket - “Windmills”
Fellow newgrass group Nickel Creek performed a memorable cover of this haunting tune with former Toad frontman Glenn Phillips on the 2004 record Mutual Admiration Society. The track’s gentle rhythms, soothing harmonies, and acoustic instrumentation would fit Union Station well. The rhythm of “Windmills” is similar to the AK&US tune “Goodbye is All We Have”. Bassist Barry Bales would bring his own touch to the melodic bass line. Furthermore, the bridge’s soaring melody is well-suited to Krauss’ subtle, angelic voice.
#1: Bon Iver - “Re: Stacks”
Justin Vernon’s falsetto vocal approach to this track could be adopted by Krauss, who is known for subtlety and gentility in her higher register. The song’s opaque, yet profound, lyrics leave plenty of space in the tune for subtle instrumental interjections from Jerry Douglass’s dobro. True, this song’s lyrics are perhaps more complex than is typically the case in the bluegrass world, but if anyone’s willing to push the envelope, it’s Krauss and company.