ALISON KRAUSS - Windy City (Vinyl, 2017)
Alison Krauss is one of the artists who helped break down the barriers between bluegrass and mainstream country music, but even though country radio was willing to make room for her, Krauss never seemed to be interested in courting their favor. Krauss has always followed her own creative path and let the audience come to her with her mature and adventurous approach to acoustic music. Thirty years into her recording career, Krauss has made her most specifically "country" album to date, though it's a musical left turn into a very specific time and place in country's history. Released in 2017, Windy City is a polished and carefully crafted tribute to the countrypolitan sounds of the '50s and '60s, music that fused the emotional honesty and personal storytelling of country with smooth, sophisticated production dominated by pianos and strings, and the set list draws from old standards rather than contemporary compositions. Producer Buddy Cannon has designed Windy City as a showcase for Alison Krauss the vocalist, with her stellar fiddle work appearing on only one track. While pale shadows of contemporary country can be heard in these performances, numbers like "Losing You," "You Don't Know Me," and the title track owe far more to Patsy Cline's classic "Nashville sound" sides than anything that's come out of Music City in the past decade. Even when the music takes on a twangier approach on "Poison Love" and "It's Goodbye and So Long to You," Cannon's production and arrangements are steeped in the sounds of the past; while Krauss's bluegrass music always sounded fresh and contemporary in its approach, Windy City is the sound of her moving forward into the past. If this is a very different Alison Krauss album, it's also a good one; the accompaniment is slick, but it's brilliantly executed, and Cannon favors the clarity and emotional range of Krauss's voice. She meets the demands of the material beautifully, and she brings a warmth and subtle passion to songs like "Gentle on My Mind" and "You Don't Know Me" that makes you briefly forget the definitive recordings of these classics. It remains to be seen if Windy City is a brief creative detour for Alison Krauss or the first salvo of a new creative direction. But if Krauss wants to be the new voice of retro countrypolitan music, Windy City leaves no doubt that she has the talent and the intelligence to make it work, and this album is a richly satisfying experience.