Alison Krauss & Union Station gathered at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville on Tuesday night (Oct. 12) to serenade the three founders of Rounder Records, the independent label which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2010. Krauss and her band joined Mary Chapin Carpenter, Irma Thomas, Béla Fleck, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas and actress-singer Minnie Driver for the PBS taping, scheduled to air in March 2010.
Krauss released her first album for Rounder in 1987 and has remained true to the label ever since. She recounted a story about sending her demo to the label, founded by Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton-Levy and Bill Nowlin in Cambridge, Mass., and that she was eventually encouraged to submit additional material — and, even more surprising, that the label actually listened to unsolicited demos. Krauss and her band then performed “Too Late to Cry,” the first song she recorded for Rounder. She also acknowledged John Pennell, the song’s writer, as well as Robert Lee Castleman after the ensemble performed two of his songs, “Restless” and “Gravity.”
In addition, Dan Tyminski stepped into the lead role for “This Sad Song,” which Krauss wrote with former bandmate Alison Brown. After pointing out her parents, Krauss delivered an exquisite rendition of “A Living Prayer,” written by bandmate Ron Block, then came back after a few minutes for an encore of the haunting “Ghost in This House.” During her tenure on Rounder, Krauss has won 26 Grammys, more than any other woman in history.
Although Carpenter recorded for Columbia prior to signing to Rounder a few years ago, she is well-versed in the eclectic, enlightening music that the label is known for, supporting distinctive voices throughout the years like Nanci Griffith, Steve Martin, Del McCoury, Tony Rice, Rush, Jimmy Sturr, George Thorogood and Rhonda Vincent. Indeed, the label won its first album of the year Grammy in February for Raising Sand, the intriguing collaboration between Krauss and Robert Plant.
After a long absence from performing, Carpenter received a standing ovation just by walking on stage, although she hadn’t even been formally introduced. With her unassuming demeanor and earnest songs, it’s hard to believe that in the 1990s she accepted two CMA Awards for female vocalist of the year on that very stage — and sold 13 million albums to boot. However, she canceled dates in 2007 after suffering a blood clot in the lung shortly after releasing her first Rounder album, The Calling.
When host Minnie Driver started to introduce her, a technical issue arose, so the actress struck up a conversation about their shoes. Driver was wearing black high heels with slinky straps climbing up her thighs. Carpenter deadpanned, “I wear orthopedic shoes.” With the awkward silence broken with laughter, Driver chatted up the singer-songwriter, who revealed that she’ll start working on a new album next week in Nashville with producer Matt Rollings.
Driver seemed surprised to learn that Carpenter lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, but her inquisitiveness led to an impromptu, yet insightful, interview segment between the two women. When Driver asked if Carpenter writes with a particular theme in mind, Carpenter replied that “connecting threads reveal themselves” after the project is complete and that it’s mysteriously happened with all of her albums. When the audio issues were finally resolved, Carpenter smiled and said, “It was wonderful chatting with you,” to which Driver cheerfully replied, “I hope your shoes remain very comfortable.” But when Driver flubbed her introduction, declaring that Carpenter has won five “Granny Awards,” Carpenter shrugged it off and joked, “Well, I’m wearing the right footwear.”
Leading her set with “Why Shouldn’t We,” Carpenter reached into her distinguished catalog for narrative songs like “Stones in the Road” and “Grand Central Station.” She offered one new song from the upcoming album, inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, then slung an electric guitar over her shoulder for one of her signature hits, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.”
Irma Thomas, who is known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, may have been an unfamiliar name to some members of the Nashville audience, but she easily won them over with the sassy soul of “You Can Have My Husband (But Please Don’t Mess With My Man).” She also regally strutted her way through “Got to Bring It With You” and “I Needed Somebody.” Although her confidence is hard-won after five decades of performing, her radiant smile still shines all the way to the back row.
Thomas has recorded for Rounder for 23 years and firmly declared that she’s the kind of artist that believes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The partnership is fruitful, too: In addition to a compilation released earlier this year, commemorating Thomas’ 50 years as a recording artist, her 2007 album, After the Rain, won a Grammy for best contemporary blues album.
The first half of the four-hour show featured Béla Fleck performing songs inspired by African banjo players and accompanying Uncle Earl’s Abigail Washburn on “Keys to the Kingdom.” The highlight of his set, however, came when Dobro player Jerry Douglas joined him on an instrumental duet of “Another Morning,” with its pleasant melody and lively rhythm. Prior to that, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas brought the crowd to its feet on Louisiana-inspired tunes like “Outside People” and “Think About the Good Times.” It’s hard to imagine anyone at a music festival standing still with these tunes emanating from the stage.
Driver did a fine job throughout the evening as host and performed several original songs at the beginning of the evening. Though she’s best known as an actress (Good Will Hunting, Will & Grace), Driver said she made a terrible album for Island Records when she was 19 but that she’s mostly done acting work to help her pay the bills while she pursues her music career. Songs like “Mockingbird,” “Beloved,” “King Without a Queen” and “Cold Dark River” prove that she’s a capable singer — and that she can hold her own in exceptional company.