This week’s Free Ride* muses on the amazing talent of Alison Krauss, who turns 40 today. She’s been fiddling for 30 of those years, and has been winning Grammys for 20. Her 26 Grammy awards is the most for any singer, most for any female artist, and third overall. I believe she might have still been a teenager when I first saw her with her band, Union Station, playing at the Eno River Festival in 1991. I went to the Festival to hear Emmylou Harris, who had disbanded the Hot Band and had just formed the Nash Ramblers. I was excited to see and hear her with Sam Bush, Al Perkins, and Roy Huskey. Some teenage boys from my church came and found me at some point during the festival, and said they had just heard a group that blew them away, or rather, they said they’d just heard a singing fiddle player they couldn’t take their eyes off of. I went to the next set, and was amazed at how tight and mature the group sounded. And I immediately fell in love with the fiddler’s voice. Alison Krauss is one of those rare finds who combines a dazzling virtuosity on her instrument with a dazzling and distinctive vocal sound. This puts her on a short list in a category with folks like Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs. She has proven to have one more quality than these legends, though: the ability to reach out far beyond the bluegrass and crossover country world and create a wider audience for her music than anyone since Dolly Parton, with whom she enjoys many comparisons. But even Dolly didn’t get a call from Led Zep’s Robert Plant to do a project of roots music duets.
Alison Krauss has quite a few songs among her 17 albums that speak to the theme of freedom. For this blog, I chose Borderline, from one of her many Grammy winning albums, 2004‘s Lonely Runs Both Ways. The song, which provides the line for the album title, also provides a nice homage to her collaboration with the gospel singing Cox Family, as it is a Suzanne and Sidney Cox composition. Between the magic of Jerry Douglas’ whining dobro, Dan Tyminski’s tasty guitar work, and Krauss’ ever so sweet fiddle fills, the song would work perfectly well without lyrics. As it is, her voice makes the song work even better, despite lyrics that are less than spectacular. This is not surprising, since most folks agree that she could sing a page from the phone book and make it sound like something from the Southern Harmony shaped hymn book. The chorus leaves me wondering exactly what the Cox siblings were trying to say:
Somewhere between that flight for freedom and what? What’s on the other side of that flight? And the chore will be the time? What’s that supposed to mean? I suspect that neither the Cox family nor Alison Krauss has had enough experience being rejected and dumped to know how to write a great lyric about it. Nevertheless, for all the folks who are or have been between that flight for freedom, wherever that is, Alison Krauss can sing of the experience so deeply and authentically it will make your heart ache. I can appreciate the freedom of her music that can speak to the borders of places where she will probably never venture.