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(Rounder 0525 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/1/2004)
Bluegrass, one of the great American music forms, has been experiencing its greatest popularity in a generation, and perhaps ever. And the single group probably most responsible for that is Alison Krauss & Union Station, who have just released their latest recording called Lonely Runs Both Ways.
Fiddle player and vocalist extraordinaire Alison Krauss had an early start. Considered a prodigy, she recorded her first album at age 14. Her 1990 CD I've Got That Old Feeling quickly put her on the map and soon began to find audiences beyond the strictly the bluegrass world. Her music followed the 1980s rise of so-called New Acoustic Music, a movement of highly eclectic mostly instrumental music led by virtuosic players like David Grisman and Tony Rice, who used the instrumentation of bluegrass to play music with influences running from jazz to world music. Ms. Krauss came along in the wake of that scene and applied the eclectic approach of the New Acoustic artists and added vocals, using songs more in the singer-songwriter style than that typical of bluegrass, and in the process forged a new sound, that essentially was a contemporary song style, with material that could run from folk to pop to country, and delivered it with the acoustic instrumentation of bluegrass. It also did not hurt that Ms. Krauss has one of the most appealing voices on the contemporary music scene.
Over the course of 12 years, her group Union Station has developed the style, managing to expand their audience greatly while never compromising on the quality of the music, or allowing themselves to stray beyond the acoustic instrumentation of bluegrass. In 2000, Dan Tyminski of the group, and Ms. Krauss herself were part of the surprisingly popular soundtrack for the film "O Brother Where Art Thou" which also provided a great boost to bluegrass and helped to introduce wider audiences to both up-and-coming artists and veterans like Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury. The last Alison Krauss & Union Station CD, a double live recording, is approaching sales of two million, a remarkable achievement for a style once considered the domain of rustic musicians and ethno-musicologists. That the group has found a mainstream audience is evidenced by their performances at the 2004 Academy Awards show.
Lonely Runs Both Ways is very much a continuation of the group's sound and direction. While other performers who achieved that kind of sales would be tempted to move more toward the pop mainstream, Alison Krauss & Union Station made the CD they would have made regardless of commercial considerations. That is not to say that Lonely Runs Both Ways is devoid of potential hit singles, but the recording is thoroughly tasteful and uncompromising.
The sound remains the same since the personnel has also remained constant, with Ms. Krauss on fiddle and also viola, Dan Tyminski on guitar and mandolin, Ron Block on banjo and guitar, Barry Bales on bass and Jerry Douglas, the Dobro virtuoso who had been one of the most ubiquitous studio players in Nashville, and another important player in the formation of the New Acoustic Scene. Douglas settled into the group about three years ago. Also appearing on some tracks is drummer Larry Atamanuik, who used to play with the 1960s group Seatrain, which was an early experimenter with combining bluegrass with rock.
As usual, Union Station imports most of their material. There are four original pieces on the 15-song CD, two of them by Ron Block, and a rare original by Ms. Krauss herself that goes back to the early days of the band. As usual, Ms. Krauss and company draw on material from the rich well of songwriters that inhabit Nashville, including R.L. Castleman, four of whose songs are included; and notables such as the team of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, significant artists in their own right, who provided a song. Also following the group's pattern, the material ranges from mellow ballads to some rather traditional-sounding bluegrass. Union Station has always prided itself on the equality of its members. It's not just Ms. Krauss fronting a band of supporting musicians, but a musical collective, with each of the members having an opportunity in the spotlight, with three songs sung by members others than Ms. Krauss, including Dan Tyminski, who was also prominent in the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, and Ron Block, who wrote two tunes on the CD. And of course, there is adequate opportunity for each of the instrumentalists to be featured.
The CD begins with one of the four songs by R.L. Castleman, Gravity. Castleman wrote several songs that the group has previously recorded, including Forget About It. Gravity is a song that fits Ms. Krauss perfectly, a sentimental piece about wanderlust. <<>>
Also written by Castleman is Restless, which is to be released as the first single. The bittersweet love song combines appealing pop elements together with some tasteful playing, especially by Jerry Douglas. <<>>
Douglas is featured on his own instrumental piece called Unionhouse Blues which is in the classic New Acoustic style, sophisticated, untraditional music played on bluegrass instrumentation. Ms. Krauss gets a chance to stretch out on fiddle. <<>>
In the more traditional bluegrass vein is Rain Please Go Away, by veteran bluegrass performer Del McCoury. Dan Tyminski does the lead vocal in a classic bluegrass tenor style. <<>>
The song by the neo-traditionalist duo GIllian Welch and David Rawlings is Wouldn't Be So Bad. But Ms. Krauss and colleagues gives it one of the slicker arrangements on the CD. It's pleasing, but not the most memorable track on the album. <<>>
The CD's title comes from a line in the song Borderline by Sidney and Suzanne Cox. The piece has some worthy lyrics, but musically, it runs more toward pop or country clichés. <<>>
Union Station, known for concentrating on new music, does include one old folk classic, Woody Guthrie's Pastures of Plenty, again sung by Dan Tyminski. The result is outstanding. <<>>
Ms. Krauss is not known as a songwriter, but the CD does include a piece she wrote years ago with the band's first banjo player Alison Brown. The title is This Sad Song, and interestingly, Tyminski does the lead vocal. <<>>
Ron Block has an opportunity to be featured on his own composition I Don't Have to Live This Way, also done in a more traditional bluegrass style. <<>>
Alison Krauss and Union Station are at the center of the current bluegrass boom, and with good reason. Their music brings a sense of pop sophistication without losing their bluegrass integrity. About as "produced" as the band will get is the addition of some inconspicuous drums, in their otherwise completely acoustic sound, that could easily be performed live as is, rather than being constructed in the studio. Lonely Runs Both Ways is not a quantum leap for the group, either in terms of style or quality, but a continuation of their trademark sound that has won them so many fans. While it is not much better or worse than their previous studio albums over the past several years, it is a tribute to the fact that they have not let their popularity go to their heads, and made compromises for the market. Their combination of excellent musicianship, pleasing vocals, and first rate material selected from a variety of songwriters, provides outstanding listening that stands head and shoulders above the pop and country music norms.
Our grade for sound quality is about an A minus. The acoustic instruments are reproduced with clarity and there is a nice intimate ambience to the whole recording, but the dynamic range could have been better. There was a bit too much audio compression for my taste on several tracks.
Among long-tine fans of folk styles, there is always the argument as to whether taking a traditional style and popularizing it is a good thing. Alison Krauss & Union Station have certainly done that for bluegrass, and the musical world is better for it.
(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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