Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment: ****
Alison Krauss sports big hair on the cover of her new album, Windy City. When I was a kid in the 1960s, my next-door neighbor wore hers in a similar ’do. It must have taken half a can of Aqua Net to keep it in place -- a hurricane wouldn’t muss it. Needless to say, I had a crush on her. Krauss looks elegant and stylish in the photos in the CD booklet, and the music inside matches those qualities.
Windy City reaches back to the ’60s and earlier, to the sophisticated country sounds of Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, and Tammy Wynette, whose producers, Owen Bradley and Billy Sherrill, gave their recordings a more commercial sheen than country was used to at the time. Buddy Cannon, whose credits include recordings by Kenny Chesney and Reba McEntire, produced Windy City, and he’s given it a clean, uptown sound that doesn’t get sappy and serves Krauss’s voice well.
Many of these songs have been around for a while. Brenda Lee had a hit on the pop charts in 1963 with “Losing You,” by Jean Renard and Carl Sigman. Krauss’s voice captures some of the longing that was Lee’s specialty, but in a less cloying setting -- Kristin Wilkinson’s string arrangement gives Krauss a warm background, and Mike Johnson’s pedal steel adds a country hue.
Krauss retains her affection for bluegrass, and her take on “It’s Goodbye and So Long to You,” which was a hit for the Osborne Brothers, sounds, for all its polish, like real country. Her own fiddle playing swings it along, with Johnson, guitarist Brent Mason, and pianist John Hobbs getting brief and effective solos; a horn chart at the end adds a touch of New Orleans jazz.
“Windy City,” another Osbornes tune, is more modern and polished than the original, but Krauss sings it with heart, and proves once again that no song can become a standard if it can’t stand up to endlessly varied interpretations, as this one has. Roger Miller’s “River in the Rain” would fit in well on other Krauss albums, and builds to a stirring finish with a dramatic and beautifully developed string arrangement. The late John Hartford could have written “Gentle on My Mind” for Krauss -- her sweet-toned vocal is aided by Hobbs’s beautiful piano arpeggios, and gorgeous harmony vocals from Suzanne Cox and Teddy Gentry.
Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” is best known from Ray Charles’s 1962 version, from his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Krauss sings it in a gentle simmer, Hobbs providing understated piano lines and Johnson adding sweet, aching pedal steel. Cannon’s production style for this album is sophisticated; I’d be tempted to say it leans a bit toward easy listening, but Krauss’s sincerity and conviction, added to the good taste that suffuses the disc, keep the music from becoming sentimental.
Krauss recorded Windy City at three studios in Nashville. The sound is generally good, with clear instrumental detail and a sharp focus on her voice. The bass is just a hint boomy, but I found the sound enjoyable when I turned down the volume a bit.
Alison Krauss breaks no new ground on Windy City, but the music, though sometimes more elaborate than on her previous solo albums or the ones she’s recorded with her band, Union Station, is enough of a departure to make me hope she makes another one like it. Someone as solidly rooted in American music as Alison Krauss is reminds us that our past is worth revisiting.
. . . Joseph Taylor