Alison Krauss talks Paper Airplane

Last week saw the release of Paper Airplane from Alison Krauss & Union Station, their first full band project since 2004.

It’s a splendid example of why this group, and their superstar lead singer, have made such a powerful impact well outside of the bluegrass world where they got their start. The song choices are spot on, the sonic quality is rich and transparent, and the performances are universally outstanding.

Like the last few Union Station albums, the style is more bluegrass-influenced than bluegrass, per se. Grassers who are wont to be annoyed by this sort of genre-bending acoustic music will be overlooking some of the best acoustic music in recent years if they use that as a reason to give it a miss.

For particular fans of AKUS, the record offers a wealth of riches. It’s all acoustic, save a brief lap steel bit at the beginning of the title track, with no percussion or outside players on any of the 11 tracks. As is their habit, Dan Tyminski gets a couple of lead vocal numbers, but there is no Jerry Douglas instrumental, nor any lead vocals from Ron Block.

Ron had told me during the tracking for Paper Airplane that the sound was coming out a bit differently than on previous CDs, and that there wasn’t as much banjo. That led me to expect something more like Alison’s solo releases, but this is a band project through and through.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably heard the single or seen the video for Paper Airplane this past few weeks. They performed it last week on both the Letterman and Today shows, and the video is running on CMT. It’s a lovely song, and features Alison’s light, wispy vocal style to a T, but there is a good bit of meatier stuff on the CD as well.

Tyminski offers up a strong rendering of Peter Rowan’s Dust Bowl Children that employs a clever arrangement mixing fingerpicking guitar and 3-finger banjo, plus a cover from Tim O’Brien’s 2003 Traveler album, On The Outside Looking In, in fine bluegrass fashion.

Krauss is the real star, of course, and she shines on the other 8 tracks. They range from modern grass (Miles To Go from Barry Bales and Chris Stapleton) to looks at love from both sides (My Love Follows You Where You Go and Sinking Stone).

One that I found appealing right away was Dimming Of The Day, written by Richard Thompson, whose 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was Del McCoury’s biggest hit.

I had to chance to speak with Alison last week, and wondered right away if she had missed her AKUS buddies while she was touring the world with Robert Plant.

“Oh yeah. I don’t want anybody to think that we didn’t play together during that time. We still toured all those years.

If I get remembered for anything, it will be for my work Union Station.”

But the long layoff may have had an impact on the process of getting this record done. Barry Bales had mentioned during the shoot for his AcuTab bass DVD that Krauss was experiencing a bit of anxiety over the process. The group got together in 2009 to start choosing songs and cutting rhythm tracks, but Alison put on the brakes after a few weeks in the studio.

“We didn’t throw away what we had cut. But we stopped and looked for more things, and then got back at it.

Everything was more difficult because I wasn’t feeling well. I get headaches (a run of migraines about a year and a half ago), and that really made it tough overall.

If I don’t feel physically well, I don’t feel like I can make clear musical decisions. I’m pretty black & white on what I think works, and it was feeling pretty grey to me.

I’m usually pretty vocal about what I like, or what I think works for us. One day Dan told me ‘I don’t know what to do if you aren’t jumping up and down because you love it, or saying you hate it.’

We didn’t have it yet, so I went back and looked for more songs. It was the right thing to do.”

Another song that struck me on initial hearing is Lay My Burden Down, written by Crooked Still chanteuse Aoife O’Donovan. When I first played the CD, I didn’t have any liner notes or songwriter credits, but this song brought Aoife to mind by the middle of the first verse.

Alison said that she had been unaware of O’Donovan until this song came to her attention…

“The song came through Gary Paczosa. He asked if I knew of Aiofe O’Donovan, and I said no. He told me ‘I think you would really like her songs,’ and gave me a CD. I was driving in the car, put the CD in, and three of the four songs hit me right away. I actually liked them all, but these stood out as ones we could do. I love singing the words to Lay My Burden Down.

I really like Aiofe – she is great on so many levels. Her singing is great, and her lyrics are terrific. It’s beautiful how she puts it all together. I hope this is the beginning of a long relationship with her.”

Equally striking is Bonita And Bill Butler, a Sidney Cox composition Tyminski sings. It’s one of those rare new songs that perfectly captures the imagery, idiomatic language and life experience of a bygone era. It sounds as though it could have been written 100 years ago.

“It’s a pretty sweet story how we got this one. Sidney Cox has been coming up to Nashville for years, and he and his family would stay with me for 2-3 weeks at a time. He would go to writing sessions during the day, and we would get to talk and hang out in the evenings.

One day he looked at me and said ‘Al… I just can’t write these love songs anymore.’

Sidney’s a student of history, and his ancestry is fascinating. He had been starting to write this tune about the ship that his mother’s family came to Louisiana on from West Virginia. He played me a couple verses and I said ‘you have got to finish this song.’ But he writes purely from inspiration, so you can’t get him to hurry up.

I told his wife how much I loved the song, and she made me a cell phone video of what he had.

So Dan and I were sort of arguing in the studio about a song he wanted to do. And I kept watching the video, and kept calling Sid to get him to finish. We had a meeting coming up to try and decide about the last few songs, and I was desperate to show the guys.

This song is beyond brilliant. I felt like I didn’t even know Sid – the depth of who he was – until hearing this song.

We’ve know the Cox family for 25 years but I don’t think we had any idea who we were dealing with until we were learning Bonita and Bill Butler.”

Bonita and Bill Butler: []

A particular oddity on Paper Airplane is the fact that Krauss covered two songs that had been previously and notably recorded by Bonnie Raitt, another critically-acclaimed female vocalist. Both the aforementioned Dimming Of The Day and Jackson Browne’s My Opening Farewell get the AKUS treatment on the new record.

The two had performed together in the past, but Alison said that she wasn’t aware that Bonnie had cut those songs when they started work on the new CD. In fact, it didn’t come up until they were rehearsing new material at Jerry Douglas’ house, and his wife perked up when she heard them working up My Opening Farewell. Her first remark to Alison was how much she loved Bonnie’s version.

But Alison said she wasn’t deterred in any way by the news.

“If you are going to do a song that’s been made famous by someone, you gotta jump in the pool if you are going to get in the pool. This isn’t about what somebody else is doing; it’s about what you want to express personally.”

My Opening Farewell: []

The band is gearing up now for some extensive touring this year in support of the album. There are dates booked for April and May, but Alison said that the tour really gets cranked up starting in June, running through September.

I asked if this tour will be as structured as the last from AKUS, with set lighting cues and the like.

“I hope so. It’s about an experience. We like being prepared and presenting the show in a given way.

We get to improvise within it – not carefully like cuckoo bird – but structured with as much of our personality as we can.”

When I inquired whether they would be taking a percussionist with them on the road, she told me that that was still under discussion.

Returning to the Robert Plant theme, I asked if she noticed much difference in the way the bluegrass or country music business operated as opposed to the larger, worldwide sphere where Plant resides.

“I like to stay out of the business part of it as much as I can. I don’t like that to occupy too much of my mind.

I just feel very grateful that I get to play music.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the perfect expression of why Alison Krauss has remained so musically adept, can move so seamlessly among genres, and continues to produce music of the very highest quality year after year. Paper Airplane is simply more of the same.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.