Over the course of a dozen studio albums, either solo, with Union Station or as collaborations, Alison Krauss has only ever had one writing credit, and that a co-write, her recordings being either covers or original material by others. So, theoretically, another album of covers isn’t any departure from form. However, while she’s done both traditional material and old country songs in the past, Windy City is her first solo release in 17 years, focuses on ten particular classics, selected with veteran producer Buddy Cannon. Although some break their self-imposed rule, the choice was generally guided by the songs having to be older than the singer and, while not a conscious intention, most (some of which she’d never previously heard) deal with heartache and sadness.
Working with a core band of guitarists Brent Mason and Richard Bennett, drummer Chad Cromwell, John Hobbs on piano, pedal steel player Mike Johnson and Barry Bales on upright bass, Windy City embraces both the familiar and lesser known obscurities spanning different periods and genres. It opens with a faithful strings-swathed version of 1963 Brenda Lee hit, Losing You, and it’s immediately clear that Krauss is on top vocal form. It then strikingly shifts style to bluegrass for the jaunty It’s Goodbye And So Long To You, a song that, while first recorded by The Osborne Brothers with Mac Wiseman in 1979, sounds decades older and features both Krauss on fiddle, background vocals by Dan Tyminski and Hank Williams Jr. and a brass section making its appearance in the final stretch for a dash of New Orleans.
Hobbs’ saloon piano provides a stylistic bridge to the honky tonk waltzing title track, another from the Osborne’s repertoire, here from 1973, with pedal steel keening the heartache about the singer’s search for her errant lover, lured by the Chicago bright lights.
A 1961 Willie Nelson is the source of I Never Cared For You, Suzanne and Sidney Cox harmonising on the largely unaccompanied intro, the arrangement retaining the original’s border feel, but going easier on the jazzier shades. It’s not one of Nelson’s better-known recordings and, while it was his last big hit on the US country charts, the same holds true for Roger Miller’s River In The Rain, a song he penned for 1985 Tony-winning Broadway musical Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Miller version was built around guitars and a band, but here it’s transformed into a tender piano ballad with acoustic replacing the electric guitar parts.
One of the songs Krauss suggested was Dream Of Me, a twangsome, midtempo chug-chorus soaring country ballad she’d first heard performed live by bluegrass duo Jim and Jesse back in the early 80s, unaware it had been written by Cannon, who’s joined by daughter Melonie on backing vocals.
Three numbers will be instantly recognisable, first up being Glen Campbell’s signature song, Gentle On My Mind, though, with Kenny Malone on percussion and Bennett playing gut string acoustic, Krauss’s fine version hews more towards the folksier John Hartford original.
It’s followed by the second, All Alone Am I, the 1962 Brenda Lee classic, originally written by Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis for the film The Island of the Brave and given English lyrics by Arthur Altman. The arrangement takes a slower, dreamier pace and is even more awash with strings as well as affording a lovely steel solo by Johnson.
Featuring a nifty snare beat and background vocals from Jamey Johnson and Dan Tyminski, the bouncy dance floor penultimate choice, Poison Love, is probably the most obscure, being a Bill Monroe B-side from 1951. The album ends with another certified classic, slow waltzing 50s Eddy Arnold hit (subsequently an even big success for Ray Charles), You Don’t Know Me that sees Krauss give arguably one of the best vocal performances of her career. Bringing new life to old songs can be difficult, but, as per the title, Krauss makes it seem like a breeze.
Windy City is Out Now