To understand why Alison Krauss is one of the greatest singers of our time — and not just in bluegrass, not just in country, but in all of English-language pop — listen to “Goodbye Is All We Have” from her new album, Lonely Runs Both Ways. Sarah Siskind’s song is a farewell address to a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, and Krauss captures all the ambivalence of such a moment.
She begins by comparing herself to the birds in the sky, and her bright, fluid soprano glides like a gull. There is none of the brittleness you often hear in such high-register singing; instead there’s the warmth and ease of genuine elation. “How you gonna catch me when I’m this high?” she tauntingly asks her partner.
A guilt-free kiss-off is a nice fantasy, but it doesn’t reflect reality, and on the chorus Krauss allows her second thoughts to creep in. The brightness dims in her voice as she admits that she has stuck around an extra day to see if he might say anything to change her mind. When she doesn’t hear any response, a sigh clouds her voice as she admits to herself that after all the good times and bad she and her boyfriend have spent together, all they have left is goodbye. So, on the bridge, she makes one last plea, her voice rising in hope, “Baby, try to end this fight,” and then lapsing into quiet fatalism, “If I don’t hear you knocking on my door, then I’ll know for sure.”
It’s a remarkable performance, because it defies the pop mythology that emotions fall into discrete categories. Feelings rarely come in pure, unadulterated form; they are almost always contaminated by doubts and contradictions. Few singers capture the tendency of one emotion to turn into another as well as Krauss does; nothing captures the nuances of that transition as transparently as her breathy vowels.
On “Wouldn’t Be So Bad” by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Krauss finds herself surprised to have made “the same mistake that I made before,” and that it turned out as badly as in the past. The first time she sings, “I thought the next time ’round wouldn’t be so bad,” she sounds genuinely bewildered; the second time she sounds hopeful she can break the pattern and finally make it work; the third time she sounds as if she suspects she’s caught in a cycle she can’t escape.
On “Poor Old Heart”, Krauss supplies the substance to the undernourished lyrics by bluegrass singer-songwriter Donna Hughes. Krauss brings out the reluctant but real cruelty of telling a lover, “You might just be the best that I can find,” and in the line, “I don’t know that I will ever love again,” Krauss brings forth both the sense of duty that she should try again and the pessimistic doubt that the effort will get her anywhere.
On “If I Didn’t Know Any Better”, by John Scott Sherrill and Mindy Smith, Krauss takes the opposite approach. She declares her resolve to resist falling in love with a new suitor, but you can tell from the way the firmness in her voice melts away by the end of each verse that she will never succeed.
None of this would work as well as it does if Krauss hadn’t surrounded herself with the perfect supporting cast. The four members of her longtime band Union Station are instrumentalists who think like singers and are thus able to set up vocal lines and extend their implications. When she sighs the title line of “Goodbye Is All We Have”, for example, Jerry Douglas lengthens that sigh into a dobro moan. When Krauss moves from the giddiness of that song’s verse to the regret of its chorus, Ron Block provides the stairsteps on acoustic guitar for her to descend. Guitarist Dan Tyminski, bassist Barry Bales, and the band’s unofficial fifth member, drummer Larry Atamanuik, provide the kind of rhythm that never falters but never gets in the way.
Douglas and Block aren’t the only standout soloists on Lonely Runs Both Ways. It’s easy to forget that Krauss was a teenage fiddle champion before she ever sang lead in public, but she reminds us by getting some hot licks in on Douglas’ fast-and-hard bluegrass instrumental “Unionhouse Branch” and “This Sad Song”. She plays viola on six songs, using its lower, darker harmonies in much the same way that Alejandro Escovedo has used cellists.
The title of “This Sad Song” implies a ballad dirge, but it’s actually a lively uptempo number Krauss co-wrote with Alison Brown and turned over to Tyminski to sing. Tyminski also sings two other leads. On Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures Of Plenty”, he reminds us that Woody was a hillbilly singer before he was a folk singer, and on “Rain Please Go Away”, he suggests what Del McCoury might sound like if he had the same hard-rhythm phrasing but a warmer timbre.
As satisfying as this new album is, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of such Krauss classics as New Favorite, Forget About It, So Long So Wrong and I’ve Got That Old Feeling. The difference is not the performances but the song selections. The balance between fast and slow tempos in her vocal showcases has tilted precariously in the latter direction. These days Krauss seems to be choosing songs that are a pleasure to sing — full of standout lines and moody melodies — rather than songs that are a pleasure to hear.
Too often those lines are disconnected from the lines around them, and too often those melodies drift without a defined direction. The worst offender is songwriter Robert Lee Castleman, whose vague romanticism supplies four of the album’s fifteen tunes. Leaving things unspoken because you don’t know what to say is not the same as leaving things unspoken when you do know what to say.
No matter. How can you complain about a quintet that includes the world’s greatest dobro player, two of the finest lead singers in the whole Americana field, and one of the best singer-songwriters in the bluegrass-gospel field (Ron Block, who wrote two songs for the album and sings one of them)? Young listeners may regret not being around when the mid-1940s Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys were releasing new records or when the late-’70s David Grisman Quintet did the same, but we are all lucky enough to be around for the heyday of Alison Krauss & Union Station. We should appreciate them while they’re at their peak, for it won’t last forever.