The genius of Alison Krauss is that she knows what she does best and she only does that. She is a world-class bluegrass fiddle player, has the voice of an angel and an (almost) unerring ear for a song. Her band is impeccable, her production faultless and understated; she’s even stuck with her small but credible label, Rounder, which she joined in 1985. Small wonder she’s won more Grammys than any woman in history.
Her journey has taken her from a relatively small-time, specialist bluegrass act to the music’s most important ambassador. In her hands it has all the vital staples: the instrumental line-up (though Bill Monroe never reconciled himself to the Dobro, and they underuse the mandolin rather) and the high, lonesome vocals. But she has brought in contemporary values; light and shade, sensitivity and, of course, a new repertoire.
Krauss might have remained on the top of the bluegrass heap had her collaboration with Robert Plant not tipped her out onto the main stage, 2007’s Raising Sand winning five Grammys – victorious in all the categories it was nominated in. So one could be forgiven for fearing that the experience might bend her resolve to be true to herself, and turn from her band, Union Station. Electric instruments, drums and bigger production could be anticipated – but there’s been none of that. Instead, guitarist Dan Tyminski shares the lead vocals, Ron Block’s banjo is as lyrical as ever and Barry Bales’ bass as solid, and Jerry Douglas’ Dobro is prodigious (if a bit lower-key than usual).
The songs are reliably mournful. Krauss has, quite rightly, ignored the fact that it’s already been covered by singers as illustrious as Mary Black, Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt, and recorded her own version of Richard Thompson’s Dimming of the Day. She knows (though she’d never put it this way) that when Alison Krauss does a song it’s like nobody else ever performed it. The selection otherwise is maybe not as immediate as other Union Station LPs have been, and Paper Airplane will take a couple of listens to really connect. But it’s certainly worth the effort.