Alison Krauss is suddenly, and somewhat inexplicably, a hottie. The once-pudgy teenage fiddling virtuoso who wore PTA-mom bangs (brunette, mind you) is now a petite blonde glamour-puss gliding along the red carpet in a satin designer dress.
On the cover of her latest album with Union Station (Lonely Runs Both Ways, Rounder Records, 2004), she poses in a halter-necked gown and hair extensions.
This from the same musician who, half a decade ago, wisecracked on stage that her male bandmates gave her a hard time for wearing the same thing to every concert.
Unfortunately, the award-winning (she’s taken home more Grammys than Aretha Franklin) bluegrass diva, who plays a sold-out show at Thomas Wolfe this Thursday, was unavailable for comment on her fashion status. However, Union Station bassist Barry Bales offered his take on the musical evolution of Krauss’ band.
From the front porch to the world
“We stretch out and seek material from the outside now,” he notes in our interview. Outside meaning beyond the realm of, say, 1989’s Two Highways (Union Station’s debut) and 1990’s I’ve Got That Old Feeling, both on Rounder Records. But, whereas even those pop-savvy early albums were firmly rooted in, well, roots music, Krauss and company’s newer offerings are more — dare I say — adult contemporary.
“We look to the left and the right side,” Bales continues. The left/right metaphor implies political arenas, but the bassist calls it maturity. “Over the years, as [fans] have become comfortable with what it is we do individually and as a band, we’ve stretched out to be able to do more kinds of music while still [maintaining] our sound.”
That sound — the sweet lilt of Krauss’ soprano, her mournful fiddle (and viola on Lonely), the pangs of heartbreak laced with Jerry Douglas’ much-celebrated Dobro — is immediately recognizable. Whether Krauss is crooning “Now That I’ve Found You” (a reworked Foundations tune on an earlier album) or trilling Gillian Welch’s “Wouldn’t Be So Bad,” the song is instantly her own. She, and her band of 15 years, manages to recreate every song in their image.
But, according to Bales, that style is the result of a conglomeration of influences. “I can speak for Alison, [guitarist/vocalist] Dan [Tyminski], [banjo player] Ron [Block] and myself saying we grew up in a generation of bluegrass players heavily influenced by our heroes before” — such as Tony Rice and J.D. Crowe.
From that point, though, the group’s interests differ vastly. “I’m a huge bluegrass and country fan,” Bales reveals. “Alison is into AC/DC and Aerosmith … for Ron it’s jazz like Pat Metheny.”
So when it came time to record Lonely, according to the bassist, those combined influences all played a part.
Sure — just try to find a power-rock riff in there.
O Brother backlash
Of course, while stretching the boundaries of a genre tends to bring in a wider range of fans (Bales claims when he gazes into the audience he sees everyone from prepubescent fiddler-wannabes to their grandparents), that diversity runs the risk of alienating certain traditionalists.
Maybe it’s that variety of sour grapes that accounts for a number of negative reviews of Lonely. “They’re superb when they stick to hoe-downs and hillbilly music, but much less convincing when they lurch towards the middle of the road,” complained The Guardian, while Paste suggests that “the record’s Starbucks-ready glow only detracts from Krauss’ vocals, tying them up in an uninspired, adult-contemporary politeness.” A writer for Blogcritic.org neatly sums up the litany of objections, professing, “The problem here is that Krauss’s songs seem to be tailor-made for Top 40 crossover radio. While the lyrics are solid, the music seems a tad over-processed and polished, a far cry from the down and dirty sound we’ve come to expect.”
But Bales is quick to brush the criticism aside. “As long as there are people, there will be opinions,” the native Tennesseean drawls. “When it comes to acoustic music, some people say the more unadulterated the better. We all like music like that, but for the kind of music we do, we have to be satisfied with the finished product.” And Bales should know — he played a cameo in the much-lauded mountain-music vehicle, O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
For this band — all of whom are highly sought-after session musicians and solo artists (and in Krauss’ case, a producer) when not working as Union Station — perfection is a balancing act. “I don’t think we beat things into the ground, making everything letter-perfect. We used to do that something awful when we were younger,” the bassist says with a laugh.
In fact, the future might hold a group-songwriting effort by this highly skilled band. That would be one direction they’ve not yet pursued: Union Station members contributed sparingly to Lonely‘s compositions, with Krauss herself co-writing only one track.
“We really tossed that [idea] around with this last album,” Bales reveals. “We know what we want; surely we could write it … I don’t know what it will take to get us motivated.”
Bring your lighters: Alison Krauss and Union Station rock Thomas Wolfe Auditorium at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 13. The show is sold out. For more information, call 259-5544.