Alison Krauss is perhaps the most notable bluegrass singer to have risen to prominence in the last few decades, and for good reason. Krauss’ approach to songwriting is unequivocally rooted in the bluegrass traditions with which the musician, as a fiddler, is masterfully well-versed. However, many of the singer’s works most pivotal to her increasing success in the early to mid-90s, most notably 1992’s Every Time You Say Goodbye, married Krauss’ keen knowledge of bluegrass with many of its related genres, such as country, folk and Americana. Later albums from the artist, like 1999’s Forget About It, saw the introduction of stylings associated with adult contemporary music as well as the more pop-orientated branches of country music. Indeed, Alison Krauss broke down the boundaries between the related forms of Appalachian-rooted musical styles like few before her did, thus making a name for herself in shaping the structure of much of contemporary mainstream country music. Windy City is Krauss’ first album since Forget About It to not feature either her Union Station backing band, with whom she tailored her pervasive bluegrass experimentation, or a collaborative artist, as was the case on 2007’s Raising Sands with Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant. As a result, the singer’s bluegrass beginnings are sparse on her latest album, with bare-faced country sensibilities being the driving force behind the majority of these tracks. What’s more, with frequent country collaborator Buddy Cannon behind the desk — whose track record includes producing albums for country powerhouses like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and George Jones — Windy City is perhaps the purest and most authentic country album Krauss has ever recorded. Whilst the songwriter’s willingness to push boundaries and experiment with bluegrass and its associated musical styles was what led to her distinguished reputation in the music scenes of the American south, Krauss comes through with some well-assembled country songs on her latest effort, with a sense of appeal that I can see reaching country fans of all kinds.
Windy City seemingly seeks to portray Alison Krauss as a true blue country singer, with the artist providing her usual bluegrass fiddling on only one song. In fact, the choice to open the record with a cover of solo female vocalist Brenda Lee’s Losing You reflects this approach. Lee, like Krauss, worked with numerous genres of music, including country music, but Losing You is first and foremost a straight pop tune. The instrumentation on Krauss’ version of the 60s song retains its pop core, with the country elements being limited to a minimal lap steel guitar and the singer’s vocal delivery. Even in the case of the vocals, they seem to come from the same place as Lee’s on her version of the song, and Krauss’ singing is very much at the forefront of the piece, even considering the indulgent instrumental. Indeed, the pretty string arrangements and fluttering classical guitar give the tune a fresh twist whilst not deviating from its roots in pop traditions. The end product is a lovely torch song from Krauss and it’s a very enjoyable listen, but it feels much more safe and middle-of-the-road than most of the singer’s usual work. This is certainly not the kind of music that springs to mind when thinking of Alison Krauss, nor is she one of the first artists someone would go to if they were looking for something in this vein. Indeed, Krauss’ performance on Losing You is spot on, but I worry that her cover doesn’t advance the song in a significant enough way for it to warrant much replay value.
Most definitely the best cuts on Windy City are Krauss’ renditions of songs by some key inspirations of hers. The two back-to-back covers of songs by The Osborne Brothers — who undoubtedly had a profound influence on Krauss given their off-kilter approach to bluegrass music — go down as two of the best moments on the record, in which Krauss works within her comfort zone and sounds all the better for it. The first of these two covers is It’s Goodbye and So Long to You, which features the archetypal lap steel and brush drumming that one would expect from a country standard, but also incorporates a countermelody with the horns and a violin, a bold risk that pays off. Krauss’ singing is perfectly suited for this song, and the gruff male vocals complement her delivery well whilst adding the dynamic of the male-female duet that is commonplace in contemporary country music. The other Osborne Brothers cover is Windy City, which was perhaps chosen as the album title as to reflect Krauss’ huge respect for the duo. This cover too displays some of the most clear-cut country staples on the album, but also incorporates a string arrangement more akin to that featured on Losing You, resulting in an unambiguous country song that nevertheless incorporates some of Krauss’ pop and adult contemporary tendencies. Following the two covers of songs by The Osborne Brothers is a cover of Willie Nelson’s I Never Cared for You, continuing the worship of bluegrass and country legends on Windy City. Nelson’s original version of I Never Cared for You is an interesting song in his discography, making use of a Spanish classical guitar and rhythms associated with Latin styles of folk dances. Oddly enough, Krauss’ version sounds arguably more “country” than the original, with the haunting lap steel floating around the mix and its high, harmonised crooning over the hushed, piano-driven refrain. This version retains the interesting rhythms featured on the original, but pulls them into a context more appropriate for the form of contemporary country music played with on this album. Ultimately, the brand of country music displayed by Krauss on her latest album is far more rudimentary than on the bulk of her previous efforts, instead incorporating elements of other musical stylings much more subtly than what fans of Krauss may be used to.
Overall, Windy City is most definitely a refreshing detour for Krauss that sees her take on the role of a solo country crooner more than that of a songwriter and violinist. The choice of songs to cover on this project includes some country classics to which the singer stays rather true, thus further demonstrating her firm grasp on country music and its key stylings, and some more interesting and adventurous deviations into pop music, achieving a quality similar to that of artists such as Brenda Lee and Patsy Cline. The slight reshaping of Krauss goes over very successfully for the most part, however it does lead me to the one overarching reservation I have for this album that just about prevents me from loving it. Krauss is a musician who prides herself on experimenting and pushing boundaries within the idiom of the music of the American south, and most of her best albums are her most daring and explorative. This record, whilst very strong, substitutes this side of Krauss for a more encompassing approach to country music and, as a result, must compete with the large amount of mainstream country music, new and old, that is of a very similar vein. In this regard, Krauss doesn’t necessarily display many characteristics that cannot be found elsewhere and so this album’s ability to stand out from the crowd is somewhat minimal. Again, I must reiterate that this is a very good record and Krauss’ slight reinvention of herself comes to fruition rather successfully, but without her usual underlying experimental themes, Krauss lacks many of the central qualities that make her such an outstanding voice in the bluegrass and country music scenes.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10