Alison Krauss has a crystalline soprano. It may have been her remarkable fiddle playing that first made her a star when she was still a teenager, but it’s her voice and her way with a song that sets her apart. Take “Paper Airplane,” the opening song on her most recent album with Union Station. The song opens with Ron Block fingerpicking the melody on an acoustic guitar. He pauses for Krauss, her voice barely above a whisper, “I’ve put it all behind me,” she sings, only to contradict herself in the closing couplet, “But every silver lining always seem to have a cloud / That comes my way.” That impression is confirmed when halfway through the first line of the third verse, her voice rising with indignation, standing with her hands on her hips, she sounds incensed that she is “here all alone and still wondering why.” Like Billie Holiday and other gifted interpreters, Krauss has the ability to make the listener feel every moment of her pain and frustration.
When Tavis Smiley asked Krauss about the song in an interview last year, she told him, “You know, women … they have pride. That’s how they show strength, and they’re cool, and they don’t show emotion. That’s the only way you can really show strength and still be respected in the case of losing love.”
“Paper Airplane” was written by Robert Lee Castleman. One of Krauss’ favorite writers, he was also responsible for “Forget About It,” “Crazy As Me,” and “Gravity,” among others. No surprise he’s one of her main go-to writers. But when she called him to ask if he’d write a song for the album he demurred, saying he’d had a months-long case of writer’s block. “‘I’ve just been dry,” he told her.
“I had been calling him for months and months about that,” Krauss recalled in a video interview on the Union Station website. He wasn’t biting, but she wasn’t about to give up. She couldn’t. The group had been working on their first album after a six-year hiatus, and while by all accounts they were enjoying being back together, the songs weren’t jelling into an album.
“We had recorded for … a week or so,” she said with a heavy sigh in the video interview. ”At the end of that week I was sitting in the lounge, looking through the list, and when everybody got in there, I said ‘We don’t have it. We don’t have what we need to have … you know, a whole piece of work. We have some good songs, but ….’”
She kept returning to Castleman for help, and eventually he invited her over. “Come on over and sit with me while I try to write something,” he said. Within six hours, according to Krauss, he had finished “Paper Airplane.” The resulting song not only captured her state of mind and set the tone for the album, it tapped into the post-depression zeitgeist.
“Paper Airplane” is followed on the album by Dan Tyminski singing Peter Rowan’s “Dust Bowl Children.” The song laments the lacerating losses of the Great Depression, but it must have felt jarringly familiar to many listeners in 2010. Heard one after the other on the album, they are a perfect illustration of Jerry Douglas’ droll observation, “The palette cleanser is Alison Krauss in our band...” he says with a chuckle in the video on the website.
As bass player Barry Bales notes in the video, the “dichotomy” between Krauss’ voice and Tyminski’s voice is one of the group’s great strengths. They are five world-class musicians, but when they sing and play together they “achieve something close to perfection,” wrote a reviewer for The New York Times. You can judge the truth of that observation for yourself when they play two shows at the Tivoli Theatre this weekend.
Alison Krauss & Union Station
8 p.m. Friday, April 6 and Saturday, April 7
Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.