This fun post is for my friend Michael McClure, who asked earlier today on Facebook where he should start if he wanted to explore the Greatest (Still Working) Band in the World, Alison Krauss and Union Station.
Obviously, this is a personal fun post, so skip right on by if you’re only interested in real estate industry stuff.
And obviously, this is just MY take on the seven best from AKUS and from solo works by Alison herself. If your favorite song isn’t on the list, go ahead and argue with me in the comments. 🙂
AKUS, In Brief
Alison Krauss and Union Station, or AKUS, is the greatest American band still working. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your point of view — AKUS is not appreciated as much as they should be because of the genre of music they specialize in: contemporary bluegrass (or “Newgrass”, a genre they pioneered) or adult country (is that even a genre?).
But Alison Krauss is one of the treasures of American music. From Wikipedia:
As of 2012, she has won 27 Grammy Awards from 41 nominations, tying her with Quincy Jones as themost awarded living recipient, second only to the late classical conductor Sir Georg Solti who holds the record for most wins of all time with 31. She is the most awarded singer and the most awarded female artist in Grammy history. At the time of her first, the 1991 Grammy Awards, she was the second youngest winner (currently tied as the ninth youngest).
What is particularly amazing is that she began recording with her band, Union Station, in 1989 at the age of 18. She has been recording since the age of 14. They’ve been together this entire time, with Jerry Douglas often joking on stage that he’s the newest member of the band with only sixteen years under his belt.
If you’ve never seen AKUS live, you owe it to yourself to do it at some point. They are utterly professional, completely in control, and consummate musicians on top of it all. You can imagine just how tight their unspoken communications are after literally decades of working together. And despite the fact that Alison Krauss is the undisputed star, when you see them live, you come to realize just how unbelievable Dan Tyminski, Barry Bales, Ron Block, and of course Jerry Douglas are as musicians in their own rights.
In any event, AKUS crosses — indeed shatters — every preconceived notion you might have about country music or bluegrass. AKUS makes music, period. Beautiful, tight, amazing music.
It’s difficult to try to pick out the seven best, since I’m pretty sure I can listen to Alison Krauss reading the phone book as long as it’s set to some sort of music. But here goes.
#7: You’re Just A Country Boy
This isn’t one of their biggest hits, but I just love Alison’s voice on this song combined with the lyrics by Fred Hellerman and Marshall Baker. There’s a warmth to her voice in this song that is a signature of her more contemporary, grown-up woman’s voice.
It’s also one of the few aspirational love songs that AKUS does, without (much) heartbreak, without (much) loss, without (much) suffering.
As an aside, I can post live performance videos knowing that it will sound 99.99% like it does on the CD. Because AKUS isn’t a studio product; they’re real musicians doing real music in real time.
Robert Lee Castleman, who won a Grammy for writing “The Lucky One” for AKUS, wrote this song as well. I can’t shake the feeling that this song might be really personal for Alison, since the first line is “I left home when I was seventeen.” She left home right about then as well, and there is a real wistfulness to her interpretation when she sings, “All the answers I started with / Turns out questions in the end / Years roll on by / And just like the sky / The road never ends.” I can imagine her thinking just that to herself on a tour bus yet again.
BTW, Jerry Douglas just kills it on the dobro in this song, and Dan and Ron with the double guitars work magic. That magic is even more evident in live performance.
#5: Whiskey Lullaby
I like Brad Paisley. He’s a fine country singer. But he has never, and will never, equal this song because of Alison Krauss. The first part of the song, where Brad is singing about the man, is excellent. Really good. But that second part, when Alison starts in, is transcendent. This is such a great example of her unique vibrato-less voice with its beautiful, haunting quality.
When Brad Paisley went on tour, he had other singers do this song with him. One of the examples I saw was with Carrie Underwood. Carrie is a great singer, one of the finest in country music today. But… sorry, Carrie… you’re great, but you’re not Alison. Google it for yourself and see if you agree.
One of the ways you end up appreciating the musicianship of Union Station is by listening to Alison’s solo works with other artists. Brad and his backing band here are solid, but again, they don’t compare to Union Station.
#4: Jacob’s Dream
This song puts Alison’s haunting voice to maximum effect. The first time I ever heard the song, I had just bought the album at a Starbucks of all places on some road trip. It was getting dark, but I put it on the CD player and started driving. This song comes on, and… well, I don’t know if you’ve ever had full-blown chills running up and down your spine because of music, but I did when the chorus comes on for the first time.
After the first time she heard it, Linsey has a rule about skipping past this song because it is simply too painful. Every parent, but particularly moms, can understand that feeling. One of the few songs that can move grown men to tears.
Heartrending, tragic, gorgeous.
#3: Paper Airplane
I saw an interview shortly after the release of this album where Alison Krauss talked about breaking down with emotion during the first recording of this song. She has said that one of the most devastating emotions for a woman is that point when she knows that a relationship is almost over.
Robert Lee Castleman — who wrote Gravity above — wrote this song for Alison Krauss, based on what was going on in her life at that time. (Pretty sure her relationship with Robert Plant was ending around then….)
Whatever the reason, her performance on this song is intimate, soulful, vulnerable, personal and magical. Just an amazing piece of music.
#2: When You Say Nothing At All
This is probably AKUS’s biggest hit. Keith Whitley’s original performance is fantastic as well, but her voice (the younger Alison Krauss voice) has a sweetness to it that adds something ineffable to what is already great lyrics married to a good tune. Of course, Union Station is perfect in accompaniment.
What is completely mindblowing to me is that the Keith Whitley original is such a masculine tune with his classic country voice. Yet, AKUS transforms it into such a feminine song that simply exudes vulnerability.
#1: Ghost in This House
I love her little story at the start of this video. All I can say is, Thank God that she decided that the version she heard was the worst thing she ever heard, and that AKUS needed to redo it.
Listen to the original. It’s good; really good even. It was nominated for a Grammy in 1990 when it was released.
Then listen to her version above. It’s like a whole new song. The slower pacing, the changes to the instrumentation, the harmonization with the men in the band, and of course… her evanescent voice… it’s just sublime.
The live version linked above is extraordinary, of course, but the album version is heartbreaking. One might even call it haunting. The resigned sorrow, punctuated by Jerry Douglas on the mournful dobro, is somehow even more heartbreaking than an actual sad love song.
I’m just a ghost in this house
I’m just a shadow upon these walls
As quietly as a mouse
I haunt these halls
OMG. I put this as #1 for personal reasons as well as musical reasons, but this is about as good as music gets.
Go Forth And Listen!
So there you have it. I’d urge you to go buy a bunch of CD’s and stuff but… it’s 2015. So fire up your Spotify or Google Play Music, do a search, and start appreciating the best in American music.