It’s hard to encapsulate the success of singer, songwriter and master fiddler Alison Krauss. She gave bluegrass its biggest boost in two generations with soundtrack contributions to 2000 film O Brother Where Are Thou? She’s had No. 1 albums on Billboard’s Pop, Rock, Country and Bluegrass charts. Krauss and Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant redefined the potential of adult contemporary duets on 2007’s Raising Sand. The groundbreaking, jaw-dropping, hard-rocking album went platinum, topped several Album of the Year lists, and nabbed five Grammys in one fell swoop, bringing Krauss’ Grammy total to 27, more than any other female artist in history; she tied with Quincy Jones for the most of any living recipient.
Next January, when the 60th annual Grammy Awards are held, Krauss will surely add to the count—2017’s Windy City is a masterpiece in the classic Krauss tradition. It’s also a marked departure from the past. Krauss spent decades hewing to a preordained script. As early as age 8, she was hailed as a bluegrass ingénue—the “Most Promising Fiddler in the Midwest,” according to the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America; a “virtuoso,” wrote Vanity Fair. At 16, Krauss fell in with a label, Rounder Records, and backing band Union Station; she still works with both today. She heeded the bluegrass community’s advice: Focus more on fiddle-playing and less on singing.
Ten or so critically acclaimed albums and hundreds of fruitful joint efforts later, Krauss decided to do something radically different. For the first time in 18 years, she wrote a solo album without her band Union Station. For the first time in 30 years, she left longtime Rounder Records and signed with major-label Capitol Records for Windy City. More important, for the first time, the inveterate interpreter and tireless songwriter began recording an album without a certain song set. Instead, she had in mind only one man: revered Nashville producer Buddy Cannon.
In 2012, Krauss contributed guest vocals to the Cannon-produced “Make the World Go Away,” pop-country star Jamey Johnson’s 2012 remake of Hank Cochran’s ’63 classic. “That was absolutely the moment,” Krauss said in press for Windy City. “‘Wow! Buddy really makes me want to do a good job.’” Calling Cannon again in 2016, 46-year-old Krauss said she wanted to find good old songs that she could rework.
The covers collection—Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind,” Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me,” Brenda Lee’s “All Alone Am I”—expertly mine a feeling first cultivated when country songwriters dabbled in pop convention. Call it “countrypolitan” if you want, but in the hands of Krauss and Cannon, the lush orchestration is mixed with deep veins of emotion. “It’s almost like you didn’t know it was sad,” Krauss added. “It doesn’t sound weak. It doesn’t have a pitiful part to it, where so many sad songs do. But these don’t. I love that there’s strength underneath.”
“Dream of Me,” the highlight of the album musically and contextually, is a potent mix of sorrow and elation, equal parts teary-eyed nostalgia and modern wonder. Krauss suggested it because it recalled her childhood days at bluegrass festivals. As the story goes, when she mentioned the song—“so pure and simple and sweet and innocent,” in Krauss’ words—to Buddy, he said, “I wrote that.” She replied, “No, you didn’t,” then started crying. A few days later, she convinced Buddy to sing backup on his own song, accompanied by his daughter Melonie. How’s that old folk tune go? Something about a circle not being broken?
The circle that has broken in dramatic fashion for Krauss is how she relates to the bluegrass community and its often-hidebound expectations of her. How is that one human possesses enough talent to be hailed as the best young fiddler in a generation and, 30 years later, as a vocalist so powerful her voice has been described as a “holy spirit” by NPR? How is it that country-fried and cosmopolitan can intermingle so freely in so many permutations? How can an American bluegrass superstar like Krauss team up with a noir-ish British pop virtuoso like David Gray for a 21-date U.S. tour (stopping at St. Augustine Amphitheatre on its only Florida date)?
Maybe it’s because, with instruments like voice and fiddle, which have steadily (sometimes exponentially) improved over the years, Krauss has risen above mere stardom to capture something essential, eternal, even elemental about American music. Her last words in Windy City press are surprisingly apt for her inimitable career: “I think it’s as it should be. A surprise … but not a surprise, I guess. If that makes sense. I didn’t know what it was going to be, but now it’s like it was always there. It just seems like it’s been there all the time.”