Alison Krauss has the voice of an angel. This phrase may sound so overblown that it becomes trite, but it is true. Her voice is beautiful and compelling and sounds as much like hope as it does the final moments before the giving up begins. I know punk rock boys smitten with Rancid and the Circle Jerks who swear by her, and this was before her transformation into a hip blonde. Those who became transfixed by bluegrass and American roots music a few years back, now own the O Brother soundtrack and at least one Alison Krauss and Union Station CD in their collection. The woman can sing, the band can play, and in an industry that pushes artifice (is there a contemporary country song out there that doesn’t sound like it was made expressly for a commercial?), they are the real deal: genre-music that has crossed over because of their sincerity.
Lonely Runs Both Ways is a musical travelogue. It is music made for and by the road. The metaphor isn’t for searching, though. It is for the isolation found there and the clawed-at idea that self-imposed solitude can somehow protect one from being hurt. The road is refuge. The narrators in these songs are tough. They’ve accepted the bed they’ve made for themselves. They’re telling their stories with determination. The songs never ask for pity, but sadness shows through on its own. Lonely is equal parts road as freedom and road as illusion. It is both something that never gets in your way, and a reason to ward off the dogs of security and the suspicion that stopping to settle down can only mean death while still living. The characters note their inability to commit (“Gravity”) or if they have committed, their inability to remain faithful (“Restless”). They’re helpless in front of the road (“Goodbye Is All We Have”) and too scared to stop to see what else life could have to offer (“If I Didn’t Know Any Better”). There’s an acknowledgment that the lifestyle can leave one horribly lonely, but also the acceptance that this is all there is. Every life has its drawbacks, and this record chronicles honestly a born traveler’s world.
Ms. Krauss holds the reins here, with Dan Tyminski and Ron Block piping in to add to the authentic bluegrass feel of the record. The band—Krauss (fiddle), Tyminski (guitar), Block (banjo, guitar), Barry Bales (bass), and Jerry Douglas (dobro)—are professionals, but never dull. It is really the sequencing of the tracks that gives it its bluegrass feel. Ballads give way to hoedowns. The tracks that Krauss sings are the more subdued, veering away from the more extreme sounds of the genre. Still, fiddle and dobro come in at the right moments, never selling out completely. Everything is forgiven anyway, because of her voice. It is technically perfect. That should be boring. Instead, she takes this flawless instrument of hers and gives it soul. She doesn’t need to let it crack or try to hit a lower note to add any texture. The texture is a living thing inside of her. It’s indescribable, really. You don’t know that you love Alison Krauss until you sit down and really take in one song. Then, it’s done; you’re hooked.
I suspect that as sensitive, artistic young women seem to find Patsy Cline somewhere between the ages of 17 and 23, in a generation or so they will find both Ms. Cline and Alison Krauss. Lonely Runs Both Ways will no doubt be one that will stand out, the strongest and most consistent of her adult releases (her first album was recorded when she was 14). It is a defining moment for the band. It is a release that, almost at first listen, sounds like a standard in an already impressive career. And beyond all that, Alison Krauss has the voice of an angel. With no hype around that phrase at all, what better reason to stop and buy this record today?