Alison Krauss & Union Station Featuring Jerry Douglas perform Saturday (June 11) at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. She and one of her bandmates, singer-guitarist Dan Tyminski, have vivid but different memories of one of their prior performances at the festival that attracts music fans from around the world.
“It’s been a few years since we played that, so I don’t know what it will be like now,” Krauss said during an interview at CMT’s offices in Nashville.
“Remember?” she said to Tyminksi. “I forgot my show clothes. There was the worst picture of me ever!”
“I remember a guy out in the audience who had forgotten all of his clothes,” Tyminski replied. “Except for his beer helmet with the straw. That was his only article of clothing. That’s one of the things I remember.”
“I don’t remember that!” Krauss said, adding, “It would’ve been a step up from what I was wearing.”
The tour supports her 14th album, Paper Airplane, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country chart and has remained in the Top 10 since its arrival eight weeks ago. It’s her first release since 2007’s Raising Sand, her collaboration with Robert Plant, which won six Grammys. It’s also her first album with Union Station since 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways, which won three Grammys. (In fact, Krauss has won a total of 26 Grammys — the most for any female.)
In preparing to make a new album, Krauss says she seeks inspiration from diverse sources.
“For me, once you find the one thing you feel like you have to say, that’s really the beginning of it,” she said. “When it’s beginning to be time to record, I always look at photographs, paintings. There usually needs to be something new I’ve heard as far as a new artist that’s inspiring. There has to be a photo that’s exciting. There has to be something to get your imagination going. There has to be something that gets you all emotional — something intangible that makes you think.”
The songs on Paper Airplane range from the new, including the title track (written by Robert Lee Castleman) and “Lie Awake” (written by Angel Snow and Krauss’ brother, Viktor), to older material composed by Jackson Browne, Richard Thompson and one of her old friends, Sidney Cox.
Krauss was intrigued by Snow from the first time she met her.
“She was working at my neighbor’s house,” she said. “She was taking care of the kids. I walked around the corner, and there she came. She’s very charismatic. She’s a really beautiful, interesting gal. She walked by, and I went, ’Who’s that?’ My friend said, ’Oh, that’s Angel. She’s like you. She’s one of those people.’ I’m like, ’Well, I’d like to know what she does.’ … She gave me a CD and said, ’I’d be interested to hear what you thought.’ Then she went outside to walk the dog, and I thought, ’She doesn’t care what I think at all! She doesn’t care one bit!'”
One of the highlights of Paper Airplane is Tyminski’s interpretation of Peter Rowan’s “Dustbowl Children,” inspired by the rampant soil erosion of the 1930s that forced many inhabitants of the plains region of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas to move elsewhere to seek new jobs and build a new life. However, the lyrics can also be interpreted as a commentary on today’s atmosphere of unemployment and factory closures.
“I think that is the type of song where you can read some of today’s activity into it,” Tyminski said. “I think a lot of the songs Alison chooses are like that. They don’t necessarily have one direction only. There’s a little room left for interpretation. I’ve heard people say that they play some of our songs for happy occasions. They’ll play them for sad occasions. They seem to work for many different directions. That’s a plus when there’s a song that can leave a little bit open to your own interpretation.”
Krauss and the band’s recordings always possess a rich aural quality while still managing to emphasize a stunning simplicity.
“Every album is different,” Tyminski said. “I don’t know if any two songs have exactly the same formula. We have songs on this record we played once. We have songs on this record that we played many times. Typically, we’ll get together and rehearse the stuff at someone’s house first so we’ll have a general game plan. Then we go to the studio and try not to be held back with any preconceived notions of what you think it might be. Everyone throws everything they have into the song, and when things work, we pretty generally all nod at the same time. We typically know when things are working and when they’re not.”
And instead of recording each instrument individually, the musicians perform together in the studio.
“We’re going way back to some crazy theory of recording and actually sitting down as a band and recording music together,” he said. “I know it’s a crazy thought because there are a lot of ways to do it. We try to play it as live as we can. We just sit down and play the song like we would play it onstage.”
Asked what has made the band setting work so well through the years, Tyminski gives all the credit to Krauss.
“I don’t know if you’ll get an answer from her, but I think what makes it work is that, at the end of the day, she has the most recognizable and unique voice, probably on this planet,” he said. “She could most certainly have a different configuration of people and still command your attention. I don’t think we necessarily make it successful. Hopefully, we help.”
“He’s very generous, that Dan!” Krauss said with a hearty laugh.
“No, it’s true,” Tyminski continued. “The type of voice she has, I think you can put it in many different settings, and it’s going to work in all of them. But we’re the fortunate ones because we get to be there.”
Krauss attributes the band’s longevity to the musicians’ diverse musical tastes and their freedom to pursue solo projects and work with other singers and players.
“Everybody has their own career outside of the band,” she said. “We all have huge differences. Our personalities are different. Our musical tastes are different. Our upbringings have all been different. I think that really has a lot do with why we have this unique thing that we have — that we can’t emulate someplace else. I certainly can’t. Never in any other group could I have anything that sounded like we do as a band. I think that has a lot to do with why we’ve lasted.”
“We grew up with the same influences,” Tyminski. “We have a lot of different things that we draw from, yes, but we all — everyone in the band — grew up very familiar with same music. When someone talks about this person from 1975, we realize we all love the same stuff.”
“Nobody was ever about any flashy players,” Krauss added. “We all loved the same kind of musicians and singers. They weren’t ever over-singers or over-players. It was never a technical thing.”
“Just when I think I had you figured out, you throw stuff like that at me!” Tyminski said.
“It’s crazy!” Krauss replied.