I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first heard that Alison Krauss was about to release a new album. Although I have always greatly admired her talent, her choices have not always aligned with my tastes. Her penchant for extremely slow tempo songs can grow a bit dull after a while, and more often than not I have not liked her artistic stretches – her 2007 collaboration with Robert Plant, for example. Adding to my skepticism is the fact that Windy City was to be an album covering ten classic songs; I’ve lost track of the number of artists who have released similar projects over the last decade or so. The concept no longer holds the inherent appeal it once did.
That being said, I was very pleasantly surprised when I finally sat down to listen to Windy City. Krauss and producer Buddy Cannon managed to avoid falling into the trap of selecting well-known songs that have been over-recorded by others, instead opting for mostly more obscure deep cuts. Only two of the songs were familiar to me. Also surprising was the fact that none of these songs – including the Osborne Brothers and Bill Monroe covers — is performed in a bluegrass style. There is however, a lot of prominent pedal steel and more uptempo material than we typically hear from Alison. It’s a very different sound for her and it is very effective.
The opening track and lead single is “Losing You”, a richly melodic ballad that is perfectly suited to Alison’s voice. There is a subtle and tasteful string arrangement along with the pedal steel. Originally a pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1963, at times it sounds like another more famous song that was also released that year: Skeeter Davis’ “End of the World”. Another Brenda Lee cover “All Alone Am I” appears later in the album.
“It’s Goodbye and So Long to You” is an uptempo number that was a hit for both The Osborne Brothers and Mac Wiseman. The harmonies hint at its bluegrass origins, but it is performed here a straight country with just a hint of Dixieland jazz. My favorite tune is the title track, which is also taken from The Osborne Brothers’ catalog. I don’t know what year this song was originally released, but Alison’s version sounds like something out of the Nashville Sound era, although the strings are more restrained than what we typically heard from that period. “Dream of Me”, originally a hit for Vern Gosdin in 1981, is my second favorite.
“I Never Cared For You” was written and originally recorded by Willie Nelson in 1964. His only single for Monument Records, it was popular in Texas but not well known elsewhere. Alison’s version has a slight Spanish flavor to it. She also pays tribute to the great Roger Miller, overlooking some more obvious choices in favor of the ballad “River in the Rain”, which Miller wrote for the 1985 Broadway musical Big River.
The two best known songs on the album: “Gentle on My Mind” and “You Don’t Know Me” are tailor-made for Alison. One can imagine her singing both of these songs without even having heard her versions. The former was made famous by Glen Campbell in 1967 (although it was not a huge chart hit for him). The latter, written by Cindy Walker, has been recorded many times, most famously by Eddy Arnold in 1956.
The deluxe version of the album contains four extra tunes, all “live” versions of songs from the standard release. By “live” they mean live in the studio, not live in concert. They are all well done but not sufficiently different to really be interesting. That is the album’s only misstep, and it’s a minor one. There is also a Target exclusive version of the album with two more cuts: “Til I Gain Control Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground”. Windy City,is an outstanding album and it deserves the support of all of us who have complained about the direction of country music in recent years. It won’t generate any big radio hits but I do hope it sells well. I would like to hear more music in this vein from Alison in the future.