On the surface, everything about Alison Krauss’ new album feels like a shot at the kind of crossover career in country music that folks like Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley are enjoying. After more than two decades on the sturdy independent label Rounder, the 45-year-old artist signed to Capitol Records, and in return they have dolled her up on the cover of Windy City with a big head of hair and a small, black dress. And for her first major-label release, she decided to dip into the deep well of country music’s past, recording 10 cover songs previously released by icons like Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, and Ray Charles.
Any fears about Krauss aiming for arena-sized sales numbers are quickly wiped away upon the first spin through Windy City. The most well-known song on this album is “Gentle on My Mind”, the easy-listening staple that Glen Campbell took to the Billboard Top 40 in 1968. Beyond that, this is a record of Krauss’ personal favorites and deep cuts that molded her sensibility as a performer and songwriter, all recorded with a traditionalist’s bent under the guidance of Grammy-winning producer Buddy Cannon.
In that sense, the songs that Krauss chose for Windy City look back to country’s sorrowful, heartbroken roots. There are no happy relationships or sexy good times to be found. Though the tempo may get peppy on kiss-offs like the swinging “It’s Goodbye and So Long to You” (originally recorded by bluegrass duo The Osborne Brothers) and the Latin-tinged take on the Bill Monroe B-side “Poison Love”, the rest of the record is a long, wistful sigh.
That tone has suited Krauss perfectly for decades now. So it’s little wonder that Cannon wanted to play up that mood on this record. It also figures into the song selection. There’s a direct line that connects Krauss to a singer like ‘60s sensation Brenda Lee as they both possess a crystalline tone and sharp twang that can reveal both spirited joy and pools of sorrow with the slightest twist or push. It’s no mistake that two of the strongest cuts on Windy City — “Losing You” and “All Alone Am I” — were the once popularized by Lee.
What this album does represent is a further move by Krauss away from the bluegrass/Americana sound that made her such a huge success around the world. In recent years, that has meant recording less with Union Station, the band that helped bring her to international acclaim, and working with outside-the-box artists like Robert Plant and Jamey Johnson. It isn’t a bold reconfiguring of her musical personality, like Speak Now-era Taylor Swift. This is a more gentle sidestep inspired, Krauss has said, more by working with Cannon than any need to break the mold. She’s staying true to herself while moving the needle forward just so.
Perhaps that doesn’t make Windy City as bold a statement as its cover and major-label budget would suggest. It really doesn’t need to be. Krauss is well-known enough that this album is guaranteed to sell well and likely net her an armful of awards by this time next year. If she’s playing it a little safe, it might be out of some fear of alienating the fan base she has cultivated since the mid-‘80s. She’s not pushing the envelope so much as crinkling it a little bit, so she can curl up comfortably inside.
Essential Tracks: “Losing You” and “All Alone Am I”