Alison Krauss has a surprising rule about road trips: The driver does not command the stereo.
“Whenever I have young people in the car, they’re always in control of the music,” said Krauss, who has more Grammy Awards than any other woman. “It’s like sharing yourself.”
That rule she learnt from her very patient father, who once let her listen to the LP Cold on the Shoulder by Tony Rice for 13 hours straight during a road trip when she was a dreamy pre-teen staring out the window.
“He never said a word about it. He never complained,” she said. “He knew something was going on. There was no judgement. There was no judgement passed on that I shouldn’t have been loving something that much.”
Krauss has passed that open-minded lesson to the next generation. Her son, Sam, has inherited her good ear and has over the years introduced her to such bands as Snow Patrol and Phoenix.
“As soon as he showed up, he was in charge of the music in the car,” she said, laughing. “When we deny what young people are listening to, we’re really denying a big part of them. There’s something about it that’s speaking to them.”
Krauss remerges this month with Windy City, her first solo album since 1999, a collection of 10 classic country covers that was shaped — not surprisingly — by road trips with her son at night through Nashville, Tennessee.
After she and songwriter-producer Buddy Cannon had whittled down the final list to songs by such artists as Willie Nelson, Bill Monroe, Brenda Lee and the Osborne Brothers, Krauss and 17-year-old Sam drove around listening to the originals.
“He goes, ‘Oh, boy. Mom, I don’t think you better touch those Brenda Lee songs.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you think?’ He goes, ‘Whoa. Those are so good,’” said Krauss, 45, laughing. “I’m like, ‘Thank you, honey.’”
Krauss thankfully overruled him, recording both Lee’s Losing You and All Alone Am I for the new album, which critics have warmly embraced. Entertainment Weekly said the CD “enforces her legacy as one of American music’s standout talents,” while The Associated Press’ only quibble was the album was too short.
Cannon came away deeply impressed by Krauss’ skill as one of country’s best interpreters. “I’ve worked with other people who are real critical about the songs that they pick, but she’s different. She’s just a different animal,” he said. “I can’t say I’ve worked with anybody who, from my perception, analyses the song as much as she does.”
The album’s release was delayed as Krauss dealt with dysphonia, a condition in which stress makes her throat muscles close. “It’s like you’re singing out of the end of a straw,” she said.
During one attack before a show, she called her vocal coach, who urged her to go outside and basically have a heated, one-sided conversation. “I said, ‘This is super-weird, but OK’ because I was desperate.” She ended up screaming at a tree.
Some of the songs for the album she chose have deep resonance — the title track was the first song she heard the Cox Family sing when she met them — and some were relatively new to her, like Roger Miller’s River in the Rain from the musical Big River.
“It has to be real. I have to see the story and I have to feel like it’s me telling the story,” she said. “The only thing that we talked about was I said, ‘I’d like to do songs that are older than me.’ And then, of course, we realised how old I was.”
One of the tunes — Dream of Me — had a happy story. As she and Cannon explored options, she told him there was a song she always wanted to do. “I just said, ‘It’s called Dream of Me.’ In my mind, I was singing the chorus and I started to look for it and he goes, Dream of Me? Well, I wrote that.” (Cannon and his daughter sing harmony on the cover)
Lyrically, there’s also been a change, an embrace of being less abstract: “The stuff that I usually sing leaves a lot of room for somebody to make it their own and this is a little more straightforward,” she said.
All 10 songs in some way explore broken hearts and loss — the titles alone include It’s Goodbye and So Long to You, I Never Cared for You, and Poison Love — but she and Cannon didn’t explicitly seek them out or want to create a tearful album.
“All these songs, there’s love lost but there’s strength. It’s almost like you can’t tell they’re sad,” she said. “They’re matching a feeling. You don’t really know what that is until the end.”