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Retro Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘A Hundred Miles Or More: A Collection’

Back in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

A Hundred Miles Or More is Alison’s second solo effort, but her first since 1995’s Now That I’ve Found You. The album is similar to the 1995 release in that it is a hodge-podge of soundtrack recordings, recordings from tribute albums, songs from other artists’ albums and some previously unreleased tracks. The biggest difference is that this new collection seldom features her Union Station band mates in any meaningful role.

As an aside, Alison Krauss reminds me of Emmylou Harris in that she has a very pretty, shimmering voice that is rather thin (although not as thin as Emmylou’s voice) meaning that Ms Krauss is at her best when she either is playing off another voice or has background harmony singers such as Dan Tyminski and Ron Block behind her. As a solo artist Ms. Krauss loses me after a while.

Tracks 1-4 and 16 are previously unreleased material. Tracks 1-4 have Alison going it alone vocally. Track by Track:

1) “You’re Just A Country Boy” – this is the worst track on the album, a misguided cover of the Don Williams classic from 1977. The lyric does not survive the translation to the feminine perspective any more than singing “Your Squaw Is on The Warpath” would work from the masculine perspective – F

2) “Simple Love” C-

3) “Jacob’s Dream” C-

4) “Away Down on The River” C

These three are modern day Adult Contemporary.

5) “Sawing On The Strings” – this is the best track on the album, a joyous romp through that debuted on CMT’s 2004 Flame Worthy Video Awards Show. This is the only real bluegrass number of the album. Krauss and Stuart Duncan play fiddle with Sam Bush on Mandolin and Krauss’s idol Tony Rice on guitar – A

6) “Down To The River To Pray” – a nice gospel number with nice harmony provided by the First Baptist Church Choir of White House, TN (and others). This was the standout track from O Brother, Where Art Thou? – B+

7) “Baby Mine” was from the Best of Country Sings the Best of Disney album and is a nice number with Dan Tyminski adding vocal harmony. I believe this lullaby was in the film Dumbo – B

8) “Molly Ban (Bawn)” was from the Down The Old Plank Road album the Chieftains recorded about ten years ago in Nashville. Bela Fleck plays banjo on this nice ballad – A

9) “How’s The World Treating You” – this duet with James Taylor was from a 2003 tribute to Charlie & Ira Louvin. It wasn’t the best track on the album, but it’s quite nice and was a successful video – B

10) “The Scarlet Tide” – this song appeared in a film I didn’t see Cold Mountain. It’s different, I’ll give it that – C+

11) “Whiskey Lullaby” – a recent hit duet with Brad Paisley. Alison and Brad play well off each other – this is a pairing I’d like to see again – B+

12) “You Will Be My Ain True Love” – another song from Cold Mountain. Alison sings well, Sting adds vocal (dis)harmony – D

13) “I Will Give You His Heart” from The Prince of Egypt: Nashville Soundtrack – Dan Tyminski provides vocal harmonies on this number – C+

14) “Get Me Through December” – This appeared on a Natalie MacMaster album. Alison sings, Natalie fiddles, and Alison’s brother Viktor plays bass – an enchanting track – B

15) “Missing You” appeared on one of John Waite’s albums. Waite isn’t a very good singer but the pairing works to some extent (Rock really isn’t Alison’s forte) on this song, which I think was a hit for Waite about twenty years ago – C

16) “Lay Down Beside Me”, also with John Waite, is the second Don Williams classic murdered on this album – D-

My chief criticism of this album is that it is again too ballad laden. It is a nice way for Alison’s fan to pick up tracks scattered across albums that her fans might not want to purchase.

Grade: C

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Album Review: Alison Krauss and Union Station – ‘So Long So Wrong’

Alison Krauss - So Long So Wrong - FrontAlison’s first album after her big breakthrough was a collaboration with her band Union Station, but marks something of a change in style, with the incorporation of more adult contemporary influences alongside some very traditional bluegrass fare. it goes almost without saying that the musicianship is superb.

As always with Alison’s records where Union Station shares lead billing, her bandmates get a number of chances to sing lead vocals, and they generally keep to traditional bluegrass stylings.

Ron Block sings his own excellent ‘Pain Of A Troubled Life’, which has an upbeat melody belying a world-wearied lyric, very much in classic bluegrass style. Alison’s robust fiddle leads the instrumental arrangement. Dan Tyminski (the best vocalist among the guys) takes the lead on the traditional ‘I’ll Remember You, Love, In My Prayers’, the high lonesome ‘Blue Trail Of Sorrow’(written by Jeff White) and the airy up-tempo ‘The Road Is A Lover’ with Alison adding subtle harmonies.

Mandolinist Adam Steffey sings a gruff lead on the traditional bluegrass ‘No Place To Hide’, with its plangent strings. These tracks, together with the lively instrumental ‘Little Liza Jane’ (a traditional tune) keep the band grounded in bluegrass by breaking up the more adventurous experiments with Alison’s lead vocals, in which her silvery voice is let loose on a selection of songs drawing together a variety of musical influences.

Two of the ballads, ‘Find My Way Back To My Heart’ and ‘Looking In The Eyes of Love’, were released as singles to country radio. Both are lovely songs and performances but failed to recapture the commercial magic of her hits. ‘Looking In The Eyes Of Love’, written by Kostas and Tricia Walker, had been recorded a few years earlier by Patty Loveless; Alison’s version is a little more delicate and understated.

Alison’s voice positively shimmers over the gorgeous melodies of ‘Deeper Than Crying’ and the religious Ron Block-penned ‘There Is A Reason’, both of which are exquisite. My favourite of the ballads , however, is the beautiful Harley Allen song ‘It Doesn’t Matter’. Alison’s hushed vocal is particularly effective on this very slow song. The gentle ‘I Can Let Go Now’ is also very pretty.

Blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald’s ‘I Can Let Go Now’ is an ethereal ballad, which is pretty sounding but a little on the dull side. McDonald also wrote ‘Happiness with Alison’s brother Victor, which is similarly unexciting. I don’t find the title track very interesting either, but Alison’s voice cuts through it like a bell.

The album won three Grammies in country and bluegrass categories, and was her first studio set to win gold certification. It neatly balances her traditional bluegrass background with her newer taste for beautiful melodic ballads, and is exemplary.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: Alison Krauss

alison kraussFor many years bluegrass was seen as country music’s less commercial cousin, far less likely to cross over to a wider audience. Alison Krauss shattered many of these preconceptions in the course of her career. She has been met with acclaim from both critics and her peers. She has won 27 Grammy awards – more than any other female artist, across all genres; and sold millions of records, to both bluegrass fans and the general public. She was named the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the year in 1995 and has been nominated on a number of occasions despite relatively little exposure on mainstream radio.

Born in Decatur, Illinois, on 23 July 1971, Alison’s musical gifts were apparent from an early age. A child prodigy bluegrass fiddler who was active in the fiddle contest world by the time she was seven, it was to be her beautiful singing voice which led her to fame as an adult. At 12 she and her bass-playing brother Viktor joined a bluegrass band then called Silver Rail, which was eventually to become Union Station. The group was then led by singer-songwriter/musician John Pennell, who became Alison’s early mentor and tutor in bluegrass history, and Alison began to sing as well as well as play fiddle.

She signed her first record deal with the well-respected acoustic label Rounder in 1984, when she was only 13, and released her first album in 1987. Her early work was rooted in traditional bluegrass, but from the first her records were notable for their inclusion of high-quality new songs – many of them written by Pennell. Throughout her career she has interspersed solo albums with band records featuring Union Station. Over the years Union Station has featured a shifting lineup of some of the finest living bluegrass musicians, including, at various times, banjo players Alison Brown and Ron Block, guitarist/mandolin player Dan Tyminski, and celebrated dobro player Jerry Douglas (the only one to get his own featured billing). The records Alison has made with her band are very much band records, with the guys taking their share of lead vocals.

In 1993 she became the first pure bluegrass performer in almost 30 years to be invited to join the Opry. Her undoubted abilities a fiddle player were soon to become almost secondary to her exquisite voice, and she became a frequent guest on country records when a particularly notable harmony was required. Her contribution to Shenandoah’s ‘Somewhere in The Vicinity Of The Heart’ in 1994 made it a top 10 hit. In the same year, she was invited to participate in a multi-artist tribute to Keith Whitley, and Alison’s enchantingly beautiful cover of his hit ‘When You Say Nothing At All’ began to receive unsolicited radio airplay, both alone and mixed in with Whitley’s original to create a duet. This unexpected success led to the single being officially released in 1995, and it reached the #3 spot on the country chart.

This breakthrough to the commercial mainstream was cemented by the repackaging of samples of her early work with some new tracks further removed from straight bluegrass, as Now That I Found You, also released in 1995. It sold two million copies – unprecedented for a bluegrass album, and Alison found herself welcomed within country music, winning four CMA awards that year: the Horizon Award for rising stars, Single of the Year for ‘When You Say Nothing At All’, ‘Vocal Event’ for the duet with Shenandoah, and, most surprisingly for an artist new to country radio, Female Vocalist of the Year.

Her music began to branch away from the more traditional styles she had recorded earlier. Her marriage to jazz guitarist Pat Bergeron (1997-2001) may also have encouraged her to widen her musical horizons. A further appeal to a broader public came when she was involved in the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, the 2000 George Clooney movie which is credited with sparking new interest in bluegrass and acoustic music. Union Station’s Dan Tyminski sang Clooney’s part on the project’s ‘Man Of Lonesome Sorrow’. Alison’s music has been included on many other films and television programs, making her the most visible of today’s bluegrass artists to the wider public.

Her collaboration with Brad Paisley on ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ was another remarkable duet which gave Alison exposure on country radio in 2004. In 2007 her career took another surprising turn with her award-winning duet album and tour with rock musician Robert Plant. She has also produced albums for several artists, including Alan Jackson’s Like Red On A Rose.

We will be taking a look back at her career this month.

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Showin’ My Roots’

showin my rootsFor the past few years former country singer Donna Ulisse has been making a name for herself as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I’ve enjoyed her music in that vein, but a small part of me hankered after the neotraditional country singer she started out as. Now she has combined the two sides to her music in a nod to her musical roots, re-imagining the country classics she grew up listening to, in a bluegrass setting, with a few bluegrass songs thrown in. The result is a joy to listen to.

Donna produced the record with acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton. The band consists of some of the finest bluegrass studio musicians: Sutton, Scott Vestal on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and either Viktor Krauss (on most tracks) or Byron House on upright bass.

A pair of new songs bookend the album, both written by Donna with her husband Rick Stanley. The charming title track sets the mood and dwells on the influence on her of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, Dolly Parton and Carter Stanley. Fayssoux Maclean sings harmony. ‘I’ve Always Had A Song I Could Lean On’ is a fond reminiscence of a music-filled childhood.

Donna plays tribute to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette with confident, sassy versions of ‘Fist City’ and ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’, both of which I enjoyed very much. A thoughtful and convincing take on Dolly Parton’s ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’ acts as Donna’s nod to both Dolly and to Haggard, whose cover influenced this version.

Donna’s husband is a cousin of Carter and Ralph Stanley, and Donna’s version of the Stanley Brothers’ ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’ is bright and charming. The finest moments on this album are the ballads. A beautifully measured version of Ralph Stanley’s deeply mournful ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’ is my favorite track. Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson add harmonies to this exquisite reading.

Almost as good, ‘Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)’, a Loretta Lynn hit written by Lola Jean Fawbush, is lonely and longing, with the gorgeous tone Donna displayed on her 1990s country records, and a very spare, stripped down arrangement. Absolutely wonderful.

Donna is sincere and compelling on ‘Wait A Little Longer Please, Jesus’, a favorite of her father. I also enjoyed the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’ (the first song Donna ever sang in public, as a small child) with guest Sam Bush sharing the vocals. A sweet and tenderly romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On’ is delicately pretty.

‘I Hope You Have Learned’ was written in the 1950s by Donna’s great-uncle Gene Butler, who spent a short period in Nashville working as a songwriter. It is a high lonesome bluegrass ballad whose protagonist is in prison for murdering a romantic rival, and wants to know if the spouse will be waiting on release. Donna twists the genders around but otherwise this is faithful to the original, recorded by Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe.

The only disappointment for me was Rodney Crowell’s ‘One Way Rider’, which boasts sparkling playing by the musicians, but although Donna tackles it with enthusiasm, it feels a little characterless despite John Cowan’s harmony providing some flavor.

This is one of a number of excellent bluegrass/country albums to emerge this year, but Donna’s beautiful, expressive vocals, which are at their best on this album, make this one not to be missed. Her interpretative ability means that she brings her own contribution even to the best-known songs, and this is thoroughly recommended.

Grade: A+

Random playlist: current album cuts edition

Here are five songs from five current albums I couldn’t help but take notice of when they were released. Have a listen, then share your own favorite tracks from current albums in the comments.

Alison Krauss & Union Station – “Lie Awake”
from Paper Angels, 2011

Written by Alison’s brother Viktor with Angel Snow, “Lie Awake” is set to an Appalachian folk song tempo usually reserved for yarns about murder, madness, and desolation.  In this brooding tale of long gone wrong, the intensity of the singer’s vocal, framed by the ominous dobro plucking and her own forlorn fiddling, speaks of torments untold if she doesn’t get out before dawn.

Zac Brown Band – “Sweet Annie”
from Uncaged, 2012

Like Zac Brown, I know what it’s like to have a ‘sweet Annie’. You probably do too. She’s the girl you put on the shelf for your career, another woman, or just because you’re not ready to commit. But her honeyed southern drawl and if-you-love-him-you’ll-forgive-him nature keeps drawing you back. She’s your go-to girl when the world falls in on you. And God bless her heart, she still hasn’t realized it’s only during those times of dire circumstance you come around.  To tell us about this Annie, the guys surround the verses’ breezy fiddles with the band’s airtight (and dig those repeating) harmonies.  Zac Brown has made this kind of apologetic tale of wanderlust his wheelhouse.

Miranda Lambert – “Nobody’s Fool”
from Four The Record, 2011

This is another song about two ex-lovers and their chance meeting out on the town, made memorable by its unforgettable hook: “When they ask I’ll just say he’s nobody/And me, well I’m nobody’s fool“. It follows the sonic template of last year’s “Heart Like Mine” where a lighter touch would have better served the sharp lyrics. Here, Lambert has a perfect vehicle for her pipes with Chris Stapleton’s bar-fly narrative.  The pain in her Texas drawl is apparent as she sings of eating her heart out while trying to ‘play it all cool’.  While she aches with regret for what she’s lost, there’s a doggedness in her delivery as she fires off the chorus with her chin firmly planted outward.

Kellie Pickler – “Where’s Tammy Wynette”
from 100 Proof, 2011

As the singer looks to country’s First Lady for guidance in life, this shuffling honky-tonk number features lines like “I’m gonna search that midnight radio/’Til I find something that hurts ” that show the romanticization of an icon/heroine as opposed to another hackneyed name dropping from the list of recommended honky-tonk heroes.

Alan Jackson – “Look Her In The Eye and Lie”
from Thirty Miles West, 2012

The hook is pure common horse sense, delivered with a knowing wink. The advice – “You may not get over some loves in your life/But as you get older, you’ll know wrong more than right” – coupled with Jackson’s seasoned wisdom, belies the profundity of the lesson learned.  It’s a perfect example of the classic Alan Jackson sound of sweeping medium tempo neotraditionalism and the wittiness demonstrated in his trademark self-effacing humor that makes me wonder who’s gonna fill his shoes.