Could we keep this just between us?
It’s not something I’m proud of, nor do I care to publicize it. I have a reputation to maintain as an insufferable effete snob. It might not be the glitziest reputation around, but it’s the one I have, and feel an effete snob’s obligation to maintain it.
Eating an entire Milky Way bar.
Scratching an itchy scab.
Listening to Alison Krauss’s new album.
With your permission, I’m just going to skip over the whole Alison Krauss story. About how she began as a fiddle child prodigy, recorded her first album at 14, has won more Grammies (27) than any other member of the female persuasion (surpassed only by Sir Georg Solti). About how she legitimized and populized bluegrass by giving it her commercial “countrypolitan” sugar coating.
I told some of the story (especially the Newgrass aspect) in SoTW 131 about Nickel Creeek. There are other chapters that could be told, had we but world enough and time:
- Her 14 albums, both solo and with her band Union Station, every one produced and polished to sparkle and shine. The material usually ranges from traditional to pop covers. The focus has shifted from her fiddle to her ‘angelic’ voice. The content is most frequently country soppy sad.
- Her featured role on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother Where Art Thou?” (7 times platinum!!)
- The very fine “Raising Sand”, her ‘gender-bending’ collaboration with Robert Plant (yeah, the guy with the long hair who sang ‘Stairway to Heaven’), impeccably produced by T-Bone Burnett. If you don’t know it, it’s worth checking out—it’s a tough album to not enjoy.
A grouchy old fart might say her music is commercial, derivative and proudly inoffensive. BUT–
She’s as purty as an April daisy (I just made that up).
Her voice is as lucid and limpid as a mountain pool of melted snow on a sunny spring afternoon. (I’m thinking of starting a new career as a coiner of clichés. Does anyone out there have connections at Hallmark?)
She can take a nothing of a song, more often than not country shlock, sing it so innocently and honestly and delicately and sincerely that you won’t notice till the end of the 3:21 that she’s gone and broken your heart.
That’s what she’s been doing to me for the last week with her brand-new album “Windy City”. The album is a collection of country songs, some famous, some obscure – all prettified and just waiting to be listened to, over and over, when no one’s watching and we let our snobbish guard down.
And it’s even got a perfect ‘You Don’t Know Me’, which you can read about in its own SoTW. Alison Krauss may not have the soul of Ray Charles or the palpable passion of Richard Manuel, but she’s got her own little perfection.
She says she picks one song and then builds an album around it. I don’t know which cut from “Windy City” came first, but I’d put my money on one of the two Brenda Lee covers, ‘Losing You’ or ‘All Alone Am I’, the two songs that have been earworming me for the last seven days.
Brenda Mae Tarpley was born in 1944 into a poor, uneducated Southern white family. She was a child phenomenon as a singer. Her father died when she was ten, and she became the family’s main breadwinner, performing at local radio stations and contests around the south. In 1955, Red Foley was persuaded to let her perform Hank Williams’ ‘Jambalaya’ at a show of his:
I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched. And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I’d forgotten to get off the stage. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes.
Here’s a live clip from around that time. Trust me—take a look. That’s why they called her Little Miss Dynamite.
From the late 50s through the mid-60s she was the fourth biggest selling artist in the US, following Elvis, The Beatles and Ray Charles. She had nine consecutive Top Ten hits, and stood 4’9” (145 cm) when fully grown.
Her last big hit was ‘Losing You’, 1963. I knew the song back then, but to tell you the truth – it didn’t make much of an impression on me back then. But then here comes Alison Krauss. Her ‘Losing You’ opens the new album. What can I say? On its own terms, it’s perfect. If my heart were breaking, that’s the song I’d cry to.
It was written as ‘Connais-tu’ by Jean Renard in 1960. The English lyrics were provided by Carl Sigman, who made a career of Americaphying such songs as (ready for this?): ‘Love Story’! ‘Ebb Tide’! ‘It’s All In the Game’ (which had its very own SoTW, melody written by a Vice President of the United States)! ‘What Now, My Love’! ‘You’re My World’! His lyrics for ‘Losing You’ may never displace ‘Elusive Butterfly’ as rock poetry, but they sure are clean and effective.
And our Song of The Week, which certainly did catch our attention back in 1962, ‘All Alone Am I’. Here’s Brenda singing it live. And here’s her studio recording. I’m still trying to figure out what note she’s singing on the second syllable of ‘ca-ress’.
‘Μην τον ρωτάς τον ουρανό’ was composed by Manos Hadjidakis for the film “To nisi ton genneon”, together with ‘Ποτέ την Κυριακή’, aka ‘Never On Sunday’, which won the Oscar as best original song of 1960.
I think Brenda Lee’s ‘All Alone Am I’ is a pretty great cut. But Alison Krauss’s version? Oh, it goes down so smoothly. The pure, unadulterated, exquisite pain everyone has felt at one time or another, usually in our teens. Heartbreak incarnate.
My heart’s grown a lot older since I first heard Brenda Lee sing the song. The muscles creak and groan– קרעכצן – rather than weep and sigh. But, boy, Alison Krauss can revive that old feeling. Just please, keep that between us.