Alison Krauss
& Union Station,
New Favorite
(Rounder, 2001)

It hasn't been a bad year or so for bluegrass music. Last year's release of the quirky Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou, and its subsequent best-selling soundtrack, helped introduce bluegrass to a mainstream audience. Among the artists who contributed to that movie's music are Alison Krauss and Union Station. All the band members appeared on the soundtrack one way or another (with the male band members appropriately playing musicians in the actual film), but singer and guitarist Dan Tyminski has made a name for himself as George Clooney's singing voice. Following up on that success is New Favorite, the most recent Alison Krauss and Union Station disc.

Each member of this group is noted for his or her musical expertise, and this album allows each one to demonstrate those well-honed skills. Krauss, initially known for her expertise on the fiddle, now also has a solid reputation as a vocalist. The opening track, "Let Me Touch You For Awhile," allows her to demonstrate her sweet voice. However, she's not the only vocalist in the band. Tyminski takes lead vocals on "Momma Cried" and two traditional numbers, "The Boy Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn" and "Bright Sunny South." "It All Comes Down to You," written by guitarist Ron Block, gives him a chance at the helm. Krauss, Tyminski and Block also sing backing vocals on various tracks.

However, just as Krauss probably is better known for her fiddle playing than her singing, the group is also renown for its instrumental skills. Jerry Douglas' dobro takes a leading role on practically every song, starting with the opening track. The instruments on that number, acoustic bass, dobro, guitars and viola (Krauss plays that and fiddle on various songs), are featured, but they all maintain a gentle mood to match Krauss' singing on that piece. On "The Boy Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn," however, the dobro stands alongside of Tyminski's voice.

Interestingly enough, the songs featuring the male vocalists, such as "Momma Cried" and "The Boy Who Wouldn't How Corn," tend to be more down-home and bluegrass-style than most of the ones with Krauss' voice in the leading role. While her numbers definitely fit the bluegrass category, they tend to make more of a crossover into the pop genre. Douglass' dobro, in particular, on "The Lucky One" and "Crazy Faith" maintains the bluegrass feel even as the songs attempt to edge themselves away. Douglass' own composition, "Choctaw Hayride," is sheer bluegrass. There isn't any crossover there with Block's banjo opening the number. Krauss plays both viola and fiddle on this lively number ready for dancing.

While two numbers are traditional, and Block and Douglass contribute a song each, most of the cuts on New Favorite are covers. Songs written by the likes of Dan Fogelberg, Mark Simos, Robert Lee Castleman and Wendy Waldman are given the Union Station treatment. The opening of Dan Fogelberg's "Stars" maintains that typical lush Fogelberg sound, with Krauss reaching breathy high notes until Douglass' dobro helps keep the song firmly grounded. However, the closing and title track, "New Favorite," a slow, dreamy song penned by bluegrass duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, remains in the clouds. As on "Stars," Krauss' voice is breathy and luxuriant, and the instrumentals are light and delicate.

Fans of "pure" bluegrass might balk at such ethereal material. But it's that type of crossover number that has helped them develop a larger audience. There's enough sheer bluegrass here to delight a purist, and singer-songwriter fans should be able to locate their niche also. There are times when bands seem to reaching too far and becoming too diverse. However, New Favorite manages to keep Allison Krauss and Union Station true to their roots.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 12 January 2002



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