Allison Krauss — she of the pretty face, the angelic voice, the piquant fiddle — is out to make the world safe for bluegrass; and she has largely succeeded. In the last 20 years — beginning as a teenager signed to the label that still supports her — she has taken the keening edge off of bluegrass and won the music new converts. Along the way, she has won more Grammy awards than any other female artist — a whopping 20.
What?! Allison Krauss is the most Grammy-ed woman in history? Like, she’s won five more than Springsteen. How can that be?
The answer, in a sense, lies in this recent collection, A Hundred Miles or More. On the one hand, Krauss has astonishing talent: her singing is nuanced and emotional, and her fiddling is top-flight. But more importantly, she brings a super-accessible “adult contemporary” vibe to all manner of projects — movie soundtracks, country music collaborations, old-timey folk, Celtic music. This collection of contributions to all manner of side projects confirms Krauss as both a major talent and a too-pretty-by-half bit of window dressing. As wonderful as the contents of A Hundred Miles of More may be, it’s all so sweet that your tongue almost hurts listening too it straight through.
If you’ve ever seen Krauss in concert with her band Union Station, then you know that she is a confection best sampled in context. She has always been a true bluegrass musician — a member of a band who fiddles, sings solo, sings in glorious stacked harmonies, and sings back-up to other soloists. In Union Station, she is just one flavor — in addition to her killer ballad singing, there are also fired up instrumentals, the bold vinegar vocals of Dan Tyminski, and the Hendrix-level dobro playing of Jerry Douglas. That band, popular as it is, comes as a four-course meal. If you hear Krauss’ singing as the dessert, that’s okay because she is more delicious than the whole band.
A Hundred More Miles, however, serves up a whole lot of Allison a la mode. Union Station makes a few appearances, of course, but more of the disc features Krauss in her cinematic or collaborative bag. Of course, “Scarlet Tide” and “You Will Be My Ain True Love” from Cold Mountain are here, as are “Down to the River to Pray” from O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, her Official Big Break. It’s nice to get these breakout tunes on an actual Allison Krauss album, though it’s hard to imagine many fans not having sprung for the soundtrack discs. A more obscure track — and undeniably lovely — is “I Give to You His Heart”, Krauss’s folk/gospel contribution to the King of Egypt soundtrack. It’s the kind of thing that Krauss does better than just about anybody.
Even more of the record features Krauss as an able and sympathetic duet partner. “Whiskey Lullaby” was a fair hit for her with Brad Paisley in 2003, and it’s here. Also, Krauss duets with James Taylor on “How’s the World Treating You” (from the great Louvin Brothers tribute disc). While these gentle ballad tracks are different from Krauss’s traditional bluegrass material in that they feature drums as part of an acoustic sound, things are really different on her collaboration with John Waite on “Missing You”. A hit for Waite in 1984, and again for Tina Turner in 1996, it’s somewhat shocking to hear it belted out by Allison — the driving beat and pop-rock texture is a sure contrast to most of Hundred Miles. A second duet with Waite (now recording country pop for Rounder) is more what you would expect, however; the peaceful surface of the compilation is not much disturbed.
Serious Krauss fans will be most interested in the five new tracks here, all produced as well as performed by the prodigious Ms. K. The opener, “You’re Just a Country Boy”, is a pleasing contrast of a sort. Krauss surrounds herself with a piano ballad sound, supplemented by strings, minimal organ washes, and Nashville-style electric guitar. “Simple Love” is similarly driven by a piano groove and drums — definitely not bluegrass. But Krauss’s voice ties it all in with patented richness. “Jacob’s Dream” is a more traditional new effort, but “Away Down the River” returns us to a more produced sound — with even a Fender Rhodes electric piano for plush texture. A million other singers have recoded in such a setting, but hearing Krauss finally give herself over seems less a sell-out than a refreshing change.
The sum total of A Hundred Miles or More is a mixed bag. There is much spot-on singing here, and the instrumentation can hardly be faulted. Dig the traditional bluegrass tune, “Sawing on the Strings”, with guest Tony Rice playing a knock-out guitar solo — it’s the kind of thing that makes most Allison Krauss and Union Station records pop from your speakers. The scruffier textures of the Chieftans backing her vocal on “Molly Ban” puts a little burnish on her shine. But, still, you want to cry out to her — enough with the ethereal thing, Allison. Too much of a good thing is still too much, and there is a point at which each of these tunes — which were uniquely Allison Krauss-ish in their non-compiled original setting — adds up to an excessive pile of gorgeousness. When each one of your 20 Grammy Awards is for being exceedingly pleasant, what have you really got? In too many tracks, the pure Krauss, the angelic Krauss, the Grammy-rific Krauss is indulged in her tendency to be a little soft and sweet.
On the cover of A Hundred Miles or More, Krauss is walking on the beach in cowboy boots, a white sweater flowing from her body as her long hair feathers away from her pretty face. On the back of the booklet, she kneels in soft focus on the sand, the sweater pulled away from her bare shoulders and a spreading smile on her face. And the music is exactly like that — one of those selling-facial-cleanser-photos would have been fine, but two steps a little over the line. Still, she’s a singular talent.