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Alison Krauss, Union Station happy to be reunited
Alison Krauss and her four bandmates in Union Station claim to be as surprised as anybody else that it’s been seven years between albums.
The bluegrass troupe released “Paper Airplane” in April and watched it fly to the top of the Billboard Country and Bluegrass album charts — and to No. 3 on the Billboard 200, Union Station’s best showing ever. Not bad considering the gap.
“We’d recorded and played shows through the last however many years, but we were all surprised at the number of years it had been since we made a whole album,” says Krauss, 40. “We didn’t mean for it to be so long. that’s just what it ended up being. It’s not like we weren’t still together as a band.”
There was, of course, quite a bit that went on between “Paper Airplane” and its predecessor, 2004’s “Lonely Runs Both Ways” — particularly for Krauss. She went from being a well-respected name in the worlds of bluegrass, country and pop to international superstardom thanks to “Raising Sand,” a collaboration with former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant in 2007 that went platinum and won six Grammys, including Album of the Year.
That certainly kept Krauss occupied for a couple of years as she and Plant, along with “Raising Sand” producer T-Bone Burnett, toured to support the album. The rest of Union Station, meanwhile, was “incredibly supportive,” and the group’s Ron Block says Krauss’ success was also a triumph for the guys.
“Most of the time she was mentioned, so was Union Station,” notes Block, 46, who plays banjo and guitar. “So the group’s name got out there in places that had never heard of us before, I’m sure. Maybe (‘Raising Sand’) held us up from working together a little bit, but we got something out of it, too.”
There was a possibility that Union Station could have been further delayed by Krauss’ work with Plant, too. The two singers and Burnett began working on a follow-up to “Raising Sand,” recording “a number of tracks” together, according to Krauss. But the sessions were scuttled, she says, because “we thought it was premature.”
“We didn’t get very far because we stopped,” Krauss recalls. “We didn’t feel as passionate about what we had recorded the second time as we did the first. To keep going and keep going was just not the thing to do at the time.
“We still talk about working together every time we talk, whether we’re laughing about it or not laughing about it. So I’m sure we will revisit some sort of partnership in the future again.”
Coming back to Union Station — which also includes Dan Tyminski on guitar, mandolin and co-lead vocals, Barney Bales on bass and vocals and Jerry Douglas on dobro and vocals — has been a winning proposition, meanwhile. Besides its strong chart showing, reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. The band, which kept touring during the time between albums, is logging strong ticket sales in a listing concert market.
“It’s really great to be ‘home,’ but you feel like you never left, too,” Krauss notes.
“Paper Airplane” certainly lets the Illinois-born Krauss and Union Station continue what’s been a stellar career. The group came together in 1987, when Krauss was 16 and Union Station backed her on her debut album, “Too Late to Cry.” She was part of the band for 1989’s “Two Highways,” and she’s alternated between Union Station and solo work ever since, winning 26 Grammys — the most for any female performer — and earning gold records for the group’s “So Long So Wrong” in 1997, “New Favorite” in 2001 and “Lonely Runs Both Ways.” “Live,” released in 2002, went platinum.
And even before “Raising Sand,” Krauss’ solo profile was high because of soundtrack performances for the films “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Cold Mountain,” while bandmate Tyminski received some extra-band kudos for his rendition of Dick Burnett’s “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Douglas was an established bluegrass star before he joined Union Station in 1998, while Block and Bales maintain other musical interests outside the group.
Their various outside experiences since “Lonely Runs Both Ways,” meanwhile, put a particular stamp on the making of “Paper Airplane.”
“It had been so long, and it just took some kind of scooting around to get back in the saddle,” acknowledges Krauss. “We had all done other projects and everybody had been producing other things. So when you get together it’s seven years older and seven more years into your own personality and tastes. And you get older and some people have more fight than they had before. And some people have less.
“So if you have those differences and different likes and dislikes ... I’ll just say it took a little scooting, some remembering to get back in there.”
And, Krauss adds, she was among the band members with less of a desire to control the proceedings this time around.
“I can be kind of tedious on some of that stuff,” she acknowledges, “and I really let go of a lot of take. You take your hands off and your fingertips still end up on it, you know? I think the older you get with everybody, the less you want to hold on, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m really pleased with what happened.”
Because of the seven-year interim between albums, Krauss and Union Station had “a bigger pile” of material to consider for “Paper Airplane,” which she says “was a mistake.”
“You want to come in with something that already feels like it works together before you get five people going on it ... because we have to get together and weed things out, and it’s better to come in with less than more because it gets a little foggier when you have more.”
Krauss and company did eventually settle into the 11 tracks on “Paper Airplane,” though it took some time and required taking time away from each other at various points. The title track, in fact, came when Krauss began suffering from severe migraine headaches.
“I was having a hard time judging what we were doing,” she recalls, and broke off sessions for a while. During that time she called up songwriter Robert Lee Castleman, who was in the midst of a writer’s block but was willing to try to write something for Krauss.
“He said, ‘Just come over here and sit here and tell me what’s going on with you,’” remembers Krauss, who has a son from her marriage to Pat Bergeson (they divorced in 2001) and was going through a “tough” patch in her life. “So I went over there, and when I walked in the door he already had a melody. I made a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches and we talked for about an hour and I went home.
“(Castleman) called me later that night and told me the title was ‘Paper Airplane,’ and I was just out of my mind for it.”
Like the song, Krauss considers the general tone of the album to be “somber ... not sad, like it’s depressing.”
“I think there’s an honesty to it that’s ... comforting,” she said. “When you look back, I think this record is about a trial and a time when things are tough, and the thing that you are waiting for is a change. Not that you can see it coming; you just know that it will because that is what history has told you.”
Those thoughts were expressed for the album mostly by writers outside the band. “Miles to Go,” which Bales co-wrote, is the only song on the album that a Union Station member had a hand in creating, though Krauss’ brother Viktor co-wrote “Lie Awake.” The set also includes covers of Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” — which Krauss considers “the second half of ‘Paper Airplane’” — and Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell,” while composers such as Peter Rowan, Lori McKenna and Tim O’Brien contributed other original tracks.
“Everybody was really busy, and it was interesting in some ways to not have a lot of our own (material),” Krauss notes. “I was surprised there was only one, but you want to represent what is going on at the time and in that span of time with the band. And there were some things we wrote didn’t make it on there whose songwriting just didn’t measure up this time.
“It can be hard to come back home, even though you’re thrilled to be there, I guess.”
Also less present from “Paper Airplane” is Krauss’ fiddle playing, which is missing from most of the songs and a back-seat presence even when it is included.
“Barry (Bales) made a joke at one point — ‘Are you going to play fiddle on this?’” Krauss remembers with a laugh. “I don’t like to put it on there just to put it on there because I play it. It doesn’t keep me up at night.”
And some of the issue, Krauss acknowledges, is that the fiddle can literally get in the way of her singing.
“I have a friend, (original Union Station fiddler) Andrea Zonn, and she’s always like, ‘Does it have to be in your face? Why is it always in your face all the time?! I would be SO much happier if it just wasn’t in my face all the time.’ It’s funny, but she’s right.”
Fiddle or not, “Paper Airplane” has brought Union Station back, successfully, from its unexpected recording hiatus. And if Krauss and her bandmates have their way, it won’t be another seven years before the next album comes out.
“I sure hope not,” she says. “The main thing is getting everybody’s schedules together — you get five people and then your engineer, and everybody’s very busy. It was crazy, but hopefully we won’t let it get away from us like it did this time.”
Alison Krauss & Union Station perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave. Tickets are $49.50, $39.50 and $29.50. Call 313-471-6611 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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