Few vocalists are as agile as Alison Krauss. Whether she’s gliding effortlessly across Brenda Lee’s “Losing You,” which opens her first solo album in 18 years called Windy City, or taking a spin with John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” (also recorded famously by Glen Campbell), Krauss is delicate with the stories. She takes them into her hands with elegant restraint and allows them to breathe on their own. She injects each lyric with an endless well of heart and soul, often letting the tears fall ceremoniously as she does on the Roger Miller classic “River in the Rain” and Willie Nelson’s icy “I Never Cared For You.” Even when bestowed with the Allman Brothers’ “Come and Go Blues” (which does not appear on the new LP), the storyteller cuts the chords on a relationship, reflecting on a lover who runs hot and cold and her ultimate decision to break free. “Lord, you got me feeling like a fool,” she muses on the bridge. Krauss, who has partnered with Cracker Barrel for their Warehouse Sessions, premieres her splendid, soul-drenched performance of “Come and Go Blues” today; check out the AXS.com exclusive below.
In an interview with NPR recently, Krauss spoke about the album’s simple, straightforward language, stating how she often felt “exposed” when tackling these songs. “People sound crazy when they try to explain their feelings, don’t they? When you make a record, it’s just your gut instincts. When I try to move those instincts up to my brain to tell you about it, it’s hard to do,” she laughs, clarifying her intent over a recent call with AXS.com. “In the past, I’ve liked really abstract lyrics. There’s a lot to finish when you have abstract lyrics. You finish them yourself when you’re singing them, and the listener has such a big role to play in the story. These songs were very much more exposed in the stories themselves. They weren’t as metaphorically driven. It is a little more vulnerable when you’re saying this is exactly what happened. You can’t hide behind anything.”
Produced by long-time collaborator and friend Buddy Cannon, Windy City challenges Krauss’ instincts. On songs like “Losing You,” a hearty waltz which suitably sets the album’s nostalgic but progressive tone, she charges fearlessly into the world of Brenda Lee, whose unmistakable vocal phrasing is unmatched. The song first appeared on Lee’s 1963 record …Let Me Sing, and Krauss doesn’t dare mimic that style. Instead, she envelopes you with her potent and feathery voice, a stamp she has developed through her 30+ year career and countless studio projects. “[‘Losing You’] was the first song we picked for this record when we were going through songs. There’s nobody who sings like Brenda Lee and nobody who has had that kind of impression on people and spirit. I do this with anything I sing, it really has to be true for me,” she says. “The minute that song came in, it was like ‘oh boy, it’s a great song.’ She delivered it with such strength. I have a different message than she does. I didn’t feel like I was trying to imitate her, and that would be a mistake.”
“[The song] wasn’t anything to fool around with. Really, all the tracks [fell into place]. There was nothing to rework. [Buddy] casted those sessions. He goes ‘who do you want to play on it?’ I’m like ‘whoever you want to play.’ He’s so respectful and honorable about the way people naturally play. He doesn’t want to ask anybody to contrive themselves,” she recounts. “It would be a mistake. He doesn’t ever get into the personality of someone’s playing, to try to change the natural way they show up. I love the way when people are exactly the way they are. I always say ‘it’s like a monkey falling out of a tree.’ He’s very much that way about the way people play and sing. It’s really a beautiful thing. Buddy is so dearly loved in this whole world.”
If that were not challenge enough, Krauss courageously reinventions another Lee standard, the ethereal, gutting “All Alone Am I,” which sees Krauss delivering the album’s most visceral recording. “We had cut two other songs that I didn’t feel felt like the rest of the record. One of them was ‘End the World,’ the Skeeter Davis song. And I couldn’t get the original out of my mind. We didn’t keep that. I tried to sing it a few times and it just wouldn’t click. There was another, a Willie Nelson song called ‘Not Supposed to Be That Way,’ and I didn’t think it had the same congruence with the rest of the record. I started looking around for some other things,” she says about what led her to record it. “We ended up cutting ‘Dream of Me’ and ‘All Alone am I’ in the same session. That was the last session we did. For ‘All Alone Am I,’ I was looking through more Brenda Lee stuff. I thought it went with ‘Losing You.’ Songs kind of have a flip side on the same album. You find things that pair together. I saw the title, and I wasn’t aware of it. A lot of people know that song but I didn’t. I found her singing that live on a French TV show. There was a recitation part for the second chorus. I remember Buddy was like ‘I don’t know, it has that recitation.’ I said ‘I think it’s another chorus.’ The rhythm of the lyrics fit to the chorus melody.”
Stepping underneath the bright lights of Cracker Barrel’s warehouse in Lebanon, Tenn., Krauss unravels sterling performances of “Losing You,” “I Never Cared for You” and now “Come and Go Blues.” In her impressive, dynamic career, the songbird has performed on countless stages across the globe, but this experience was unlike anything she had ever mastered. “Oh, I love that. It was so fun. You go in and walk around and see all the antiques. We did something for Cracker Barrel 15 years ago and put out music first there. I think we were the first musical venture they did. We’ve been at the warehouse before and loved looking at all that stuff. I grew up going to flea markets and antique stores, so I have a connection to that kind of thing. It’s a period of time that those stores are decorated in. The restaurants are decorated in one generation past what we grew up with. That’s a real romantic thing,” she says, paralleling the magic of the music with the rustic backdrop which served to heighten her own personal reflections. “You have the memories somebody told to you instead of your own firsthand memories. But you’re tied to it because you heard those stories as a kid. It’s got that mystery at the same time. The Coxes were there and Barry Bales and Ron Block (who was from California). When we’re walking through all that stuff and looking at it, I don’t know how many feet high shelves full of stuff there were, from oil cans to tennis rackets to shoes. Depending on where people came from in the country, everyone has different memories tied to different things. I’ve always had an appreciation and reverence for history and tradition and the past.”
From bluegrass to roots to country, the music is firmly planted in the past, nurtured by the charm and musicianship of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family to such modern players like Old Crow Medicine Show, Rhiannon Giddens and Krauss herself. The storied past is ingrained in the sharp fiddle playing which has defined her career, only upon further reflection did she consider the past’s role in refueling her spirit. “Especially roots music people, they cling to the past. There’s a comfort in seeing those things. And I’m one of those people. It was beautiful. The setup in there was amazing. It’s a reminder of simpler times. The mood in there kind of goes along with all the songs we grew up singing,” she recollects. “Cracker Barrel puts out a lot of roots music. They’re very supportive of all the things we love so much. When you hear people that play that kind of stuff, they alway say ‘I think I was born in the wrong time.’ I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that. ‘I should have been born in the ‘30s or ‘40s.’”
On the Cracker Barrel edition of Windy City, Krauss tacks on “Make the World Go Away” (which she had previously recorded with Jamey Johnson for his 2012 studio project Living for a Song: Tribute to Hank Cochran). “When I sang that lead, that’s when I knew I really wanted to work with Buddy. I had never sang a lead for Buddy before. I had only sang harmony for him in the past. When I was singing that lead, I thought ‘oh my gosh, this guy makes me wanna really do a good job.’ I thought it fit with the rest of the record. I love how it turned out,” she says.
For someone of Krauss’ level and expertise, you might think the joy of performing has eroded. But that’s certainly not the case. she continues finding the joy and release in the live setting. “We haven’t performed too many songs from [this album] yet. We’ve performed ‘Gentle on My Mind’ a few times. That has been a blast. Some of the other ones, I haven’t sung live yet. I’m sure when that comes up, I’ll have a different favorite. They alway switch around. When you’re connected to them, it’s always a relief. It’s a real gift to get to experience that,” she says.
Check out Krauss’ performance of “Come and Go Blues” below.