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(Rounder 0495 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/18/2001)
Those of us who think that music should rise to public attention on its own merits are occasionally miffed that it takes something like a movie or worse, a television commercial, to thrust suddenly into the popular spotlight worthy music that has been around in relative obscurity for years. But when it does happen, at least it provides a boost for the artists and does expose many people to worthwhile music they might never have otherwise heard from the commercial media. An excellent example is bluegrass. The great American music form has been around for the better part of a century. Once in a long while it gets a little attention. In the early 1970s, there was the film "Deliverance" that made Duelin' Banjos a hit. The recent hit film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" with its soundtrack laden with bluegrass and traditional folk music has rekindled awareness of the styles among millions of lost souls who might not be regular listeners to Public Radio or aware of the folk festival scene where bluegrass has been flourishing since an acoustic music renaissance in the early 1980s.
The last few years have seen some remarkable artists appear on the bluegrass scene, not unlike twenty years ago when innovators like David Grisman, Tony Rice, Sam Bush and later Béla Fleck gave us what became known as New Acoustic Music. Today's bluegrass flowering has also seen veteran popular country artists, whose career began in bluegrass, return to the style, including Ricky Skaggs and Dolly Parton, and more recently Patty Loveless. But there is also a new generation of bluegrass musicians who are pushing the music forward in new directions, notably combining the thoughtful style of folk-influenced singer-songwriters with bluegrass instrumentation, and moving away from the high-lonesome vocal style that has been traditional since Bill Monroe, to the more sophisticated approach of the new folk scene. One of the bright lights in this new breed of bluegrass is the band Nickel Creek. But the group probably most responsible for this appealing bluegrass hybrid is Alison Krauss and Union Station, who have just released a new CD called New Favorite, their first as a band in nearly four years.
Bluegrass has always attracted its share of prodigies, and Alison Krauss is a prime example. The fiddle player and vocalist had recorded her first album at age 14, and was leading her own group soon afterward. Her 1990 album I've Got That Old Feeling, attracted a great deal of attention, including in some of the general media. Ms. Krauss's recording career has alternated between solo albums -- with studio musicians providing the backing -- and recordings with her regular group Union Station, which she likes to maintain is a band of co-equals, with others sharing lead vocal duties. The last full Union Station album So Long, So Wrong released in 1997, was real gem, epitomizing the new, more elegant song-based bluegrass sound. Ms. Krauss followed that with Forget About It, which was billed as a solo album that put her is a slightly more pop-oriented context, and was for me, a bit of a disappointment compared to its predecessor. But the new Union Station album is on the par with Ms. Krauss' best, continuing the combination of superb musicianship and artistic integrity along with Ms. Krauss' languid vocals that seem to make you melt.
Union Station has undergone one personnel change, the replacement of mandolinist Adam Steffney with the world's most ubiquitous Dobro player, and certainly one the finest, Jerry Douglas. Douglas has appeared on literally thousands of recording sessions, from straight bluegrass to commercial country to highly eclectic, and the fact that he is settling into this band has given him an opportunity to work on a steady basis with the arrangements so that his playing reaches new heights. The rest of the band remains, including banjo man Ron Block, who also contributes one song and lead vocals as he did on So Long So Wrong, guitarist Dan Tyminski, also does some lead vocals, and incidentally did the vocals that were lip-synced by actor George Clooney in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?". And on bass is Barry Bales, who also performed similar duties on Dolly Parton's bluegrass albums.
New Favorite is many ways is a sequel to So Long, So Wrong, in that the CD consists of a similar mix of laid-back singer-songwriter material and more traditional bluegrass. Ms. Krauss, not being a very prolific songwriter, imports material from some of the same songwriters whose work was included on So Long, So Wrong, including Bob Lucas, and the Boston-area songwriter Mark Simos, who wrote the two most memorable songs on So Long, So Wrong. There is also some traditional material arranged by the group, plus a piece by West-Coast pop songwriter Wendy Waldman, a Dan Fogelberg cover, a new song by the neo-traditionalist Gillian Welch, and one upbeat instrumental by Dobroist Douglas.
As usual, the group's musicianship is nothing short of superb. These folks can pick fast if they want to, but they don't often do so, instead, they use the textures of their acoustic instrumentation in the service of the song, adding a lot of subtle touches that one comes to appreciate more the more one hears the album. Once in a while, the group's pop tendencies appear, and the sound can get rather un-bluegrassy, but for the most part, the result is thoroughly tasteful and often downright beautiful.
Opening the CD is one of two songs written by Robert Lee Castleman, Let Me Touch You for a While. In form, it's a more pop-oriented composition with somewhat sentimental lyrics, but Ms. Krauss and company give the song a lot of class in their distinctive acoustic style, with Jerry Douglas' Dobro really shining. <<>>
Also showing the group's creative sonic blend is their arrangement of the traditional song The Boy Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn. Dan Tyminski does the vocal, while Douglas' lap steel guitar gives the song a surprisingly bluesy sound, especially in the opening section. <<>> The rest of the band enters to turn things more toward familiar bluegrass. <<>>
The songs written by Mark Simos were highlights of the band's last album. Krauss and company again draw on two of Simos' compositions, and the results are no less memorable. Simos' songs are notable for their sophisticated musical content, on which these fine musicians really shine. The first of them, Crazy Faith is an absolute gem. <<>>
The other Simos composition, Take Me for Longing, has a more traditional sound, including the lyrical style. But the distinctive lyrics and the slightly irregular rhythm makes the piece more fascinating the more one listens to it. <<>>
Banjoist Ron Block's contribution to the album is a piece called It All Comes Down to You, which also highlights the group's intriguing blend of the traditional with the musically sophisticated. <<>>
The one instrumental is by Douglas. It's called Choctaw Hayride, and it provides the group a chance to stretch out instrumentally, especially the composer with his Dobro. <<>>
The other Bob Lucas song is Daylight, a fine composition that Ms. Krauss and band do with their combination of bluegrass instrumentation and elegant pop sensibility. <<>>
There are a couple of times on the CD where the group does cross over the line to excessive sweetness. One of them is song Stars, by Dan Fogelberg, an artist who in the 1970s who often got into the lightweight sentimental pop mode. Ms. Krauss and Union Station manage to keep the song from being too sappy, but it's still a bit too sweet for my taste. <<>>
The album ends with a new song by Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings, the title track, New Favorite. Union Station's performance is a contrast to the stark sound one usually associates with Ms. Welch. <<>>
New Favorite, the new release by Alison Krauss and Union Station, is a well-named CD. It's an example of the some of the best the new bluegrass scene has to offer -- an appreciation of the traditions of bluegrass, but a wide-ranging blend that also draws on the style of contemporary singer-songwriters, as reflected in Ms. Krauss' very classy, elegant vocals. All the members of this group are world-class players, and the addition of Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas as a regular member makes Union Station all the remarkable for their musicianship.
From a sonic standpoint, this CD is also a class act. Our sound quality grade is an unqualified "A". The acoustic instrumentation is nicely recorded, and the sound is very clean and open, even when some studio effects are added. And the relative lack of audio compression, and wide dynamic range deserve special praise.
Even though it took Hollywood movie to open many people's ears to the joys of bluegrass, its resurgence is a most welcome event. It's happening at just the time when a new generation of pickers are breathing new creative life into the great American music form. Alison Krauss and Union Station represent the best the new generation of bluegrass has to offer, and their CD New Favorite is a superb example.
(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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