Alison Krauss‘ new release Windy City is a journey forward into the past of Country music.
I kick myself that back when Alison was starting out as a youngster in Central Illinois, I was wasting my college days in Urbana-Champaign listening to classic rock and college rock, leaving my country roots temporarily aside. By the time I grew out of this phase, I had missed multitude opportunities to see the likes of Ms. Krauss, Uncle Tupelo and other young legends-to-be play live music in my college town. Live and learn.
Alison Krauss has been doing some living and learning of her own. On Windy City, she learns to let go, handing the song-picking reigns over to veteran Nashville producer Buddy Cannon, and handing over most of the fiddle-playing to a cast of legendary studio musicians and fellow Union Station band members. Krauss has noted that she started out with a vague intention, simply to find songs that were older than she was. As a contemporary, this results in songs mostly older than I am… mostly.
The set list became a mix of major & minor hits of 50s & 60s Nashville Sound and some others that drew on the style, in particular “countrypolitan”—heavy on the piano & strings designed to appeal to the pop market, in competition to the more traditional honky tonk Bakersfield Sound. As a traditionalist, I’m firmly in the Bakersfield camp. As a roots music fan, I’d also rather listen to most anything Chet Atkins’ greed produced a generation ago than anything coming off Music Row today.
In the spirit of Chet Atkins, Buddy Cannon starts off the album with Brenda Lee, an artist who stretched between rockabilly, country and pop, with the big sound of 1963’s “Losing You” which went to No. 6 on the pop charts. Lest we pay too much tribute to the Nashville Sound, Cannon comes back with two more traditional songs from The Osborne Brothers, a popular 60s & 70s bluegrass outfit. “It’s Goodbye and So Long to You”, which originally featured Mac Wiseman‘s vocals, and the title track, originally released on a 1972 album “Bobby & Sonny” along with songs written by Tom T. Hall, Ernest Tubb, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard (again with the genre-stretching). “Windy City” evokes a similar spirit of urban migration and lost love heard in Harlan Howard‘s classic “Streets of Baltimore”, popularized as a Chet Atkins production for Bobby Bare released in 1966, and later recorded by Gram Parsons among others. As an Illinois native, “Windy City” is an appropriate personal reflection on the state’s major metropolis, as well as a fitting refresh of an overlooked country standard.
The next group of songs continues to confirm and confound. Buddy gives Alison a gift with Willie Nelson‘s only single on Monument Records, 1964’s “I Never Cared For You.” I have to confess my ignorance of the earlier release, as I know this song from 1998’s Daniel Lanois production, Teatro (one of my favorite albums of the 90s). Track 5 “River in the Rain” is a Roger Miller show tune from the Huck Finn musical Big River, a 1985 Tony-award winning effort that becomes the exception to prove Krauss’ song-picking rule. Vern Gosdin‘s Top 10 hit “Dream of Me” also pushes the sonic timeline to 1981—producer Cannon was a co-writer, and offers backing vocals along with his daughter Melonie.
While folk & bluegrass master John Hartford originally wrote “Gentle on My Mind,” released in 1967, and won Grammy Awards in 1968 as Best Folk Performance and Best Country & Western Song. The song also became a breakout countrypolitan hit for Glen Campbell, winning him Grammys the same year for Best Male Country & Western Solo Vocal Performance and Best Country & Western Recording. Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin also rode the song to No.2 on the UK music charts. Johnny Cash even released a poignant version in 2003, on his Unearthed collection, go figure. Its a song music critics—traditionalists and too-cool-for-school crowd—love to hate, but again a generation on its a guilty pleasure, a song in any arrangement so much better than anything on the radio, the sins of the Nashville Sound perhaps must be forgiven.
The standard release then wraps with another Brenda Lee song, “All Alone Am I”, a 1962 pop hit, originally a Greek show tune; Bill Monroe‘s 1951 Decca B-side “Poison Love”, and Eddy Arnold‘s 1955 song “You Don’t Know Me”, which Wille Nelson also honored as the title to his tribute to co-writer Cindy Walker.
Windy City is a departure and a continuation of Alison Krauss’ eclectic musical production, from hardcore bluegrass and gospel to the neo-traditional folk of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, to her musical flirtation with Robert Plant and several duets the past few years. Krauss offers something here for Country radio and the everyday Country music fan, along with the nuance appreciated by Americana music fans. If you buy only one album this year, buy Windy City and put it on repeat.
Windy City was released 17 February, Krauss’ first new solo release in many years, and debuted at number one on Billboard’s Top Country chart and No. 9 on the Billboard 200 album sales chart. There’s several versions of the CD out on the retail racks:
- 10 track standard version
- 11 track Cracker Barrel Exclusive edition
- 14 track “Deluxe Version”, which is streaming on Spotify and elsewhere.
- 16 track Target-exclusive version adds two more tracks
Too bad I’m 100-miles or more from the nearest Target, and even further from a Cracker Barrel Country Store, so it’s standard version at home & Spotify streaming from work.