CARY, N.C. — Alison Krauss doesn’t talk much on stage, but here’s one thing she said Saturday night (May 12) that made acoustic music fans in Cary, N.C., take notice: “Tony’s music is my favorite music ever recorded.”
That would be Tony Rice, who has been sitting in with Krauss and her band, Union Station, for a string of dates this spring featuring a set list almost entirely comprised of Rice’s engaging catalog. Surrounded by towering trees and cloudy skies at Koka Booth Amphitheatre, you could often catch Krauss or her bandmates glancing at Rice with a huge grin whenever he’d play something remarkable on guitar. In other words, they were looking his way all night long. If there was such a thing as bluegrass fantasy camp, this would be it.
Krauss and Union Station stepped on stage first, then she turned and pointed to the corner of the stage to introduce her hero. The 90-minute set started with Gordon Lightfoot’s “Shadows,” followed by the upbeat songs, “I’m Walkin'” and “Sawin’ on the Strings.” The evening then turned mellow for a while, with poignant turns on “Early Morning Rain” and “Four Strong Winds,” with the melancholy lyrics matching their beautiful melodies.
At one point early in the show, everybody but Rice left the stage, giving the guitarist a chance to play alone. (He doesn’t sing anymore due to a health issue related to his vocal cords.) While countless musicians would take that opportunity to show off how fast they can play, Rice lets his notes ring, giving the audience a chance to catch their breath or more likely, shake their heads in awe. How does he do that? Even when he’s tuning his guitar, the audience seemed interested. “More notes for your musical dollar,” he quipped.
Dobroist Jerry Douglas joined him for an instrumental duet, then mentioned they’ve known each other and stood beside each other on countless stages for 30 years. “That’s what this is all about — spreading the word of Tony Rice,” Douglas said. Dan Tyminski, a fellow guitarist who is certainly one of the genre’s strongest voices, offered a spot-on rendition of “Church Street Blues,” always a highlight among Rice’s sad songs.
After that, Krauss came back to sing “Streets of London,” which she infused with the tender delivery that marks her best work. It isn’t hard to picture her as a teenager listening to Rice’s version over and over and over, considering the material she has since chosen in her own career. Later in the show, she remarked that when she first began to record songs, she used to wonder, “Would Tony like this song?” She told the attentive audience that when she first heard Robert Lee Castleman’s “Let Me Touch You for a While,” she decided that Rice probably would have cut it. Although it’s not a part of his own catalog, Rice seemed perfectly comfortable making the song shine.
Really, though, everybody on stage looked at ease throughout the night, cracking jokes and playing off each other, literally. Seeing Krauss’ face volleying between Rice and Tyminksi was delightful, and she’d howl with laughter whenever one of them would kick it up a notch. As always, bassist Barry Bales and banjo player Ron Block offered solid support. Krauss is no slouch, either, bringing whoops and hollers from the audience on the jaunty, honky-tonk number, “Any Old Time,” made popular in country circles by Hank Snow.
There was no need for special effects at a concert like this, but the band did offer a special slideshow with wonderful snapshots of Krauss, Rice and all the bluegrass greats over the last few decades — Doc Watson, Doyle Lawson, Vassar Clements, J.D. Crowe, Sam Bush and even Jerry Garcia. Anybody who saw this performance would be quick to tell you that Rice and Krauss belong among these masters, too.