Now That I've Found You: A Collection
Alison Krauss has been getting a workout of late. That’s her singing ethereal duets with Alan Jackson and Shenandoah, supplying background vocals for Vince Gill and on Dolly Parton’s Heartsongs, and opening shows for Garth Brooks. In fact, country music fans have heard so much from Krauss, they might not realize that this newly inducted member of the Grand Ole Opry is a bona fide , bluegrass star with two Grammys and three new nominations to her credit.
As if to remind people of her ”other” career, here comes Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection (Rounder). This set of nine songs culled from a five-album catalog recorded from 1987 to 1994 would be nothing more than a crash course in Alison Krauss if it didn’t also contain three new, unreleased songs and a bonus track, the Grammy-nominated ”When You Say Nothing at All,” from Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album. The reprised material is often thrilling — a traditional bluegrass-gospel cut with the Cox Family (1993’s ”When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart”) features Krauss and Suzanne Cox harmonizing like long-lost siblings. The new songs are also interesting, but more for the unsettling things they say about where Krauss is headed musically.
As a bluegrass artist, Krauss has always stood apart. For one thing, she’s young (23) and female in a field traditionally dominated by older men. For another, her high, feathery soprano, innocent as an angel’s and just as pure, sounds like that of no other established star, except perhaps early Dolly Parton. Finally, with total record sales hovering over the 500,000 mark (most bluegrass albums sell around 20,000), she’s a genuine commercial success.
Predictably, major labels have tried to woo her with all manner of candy, flowers, and mainstream success. But Krauss, who looks like Linda Ronstadt with hair by Botticelli, has steadfastly refused to leave her Cambridge, Mass.-based independent, Rounder Records, suggesting a desire to play bluegrass and gospel, not contemporary country, and to pursue music instead of fame. So add integrity to the above list.
Yet while Krauss and her crack band, Union Station, have always balanced traditional bluegrass and newgrass tunes by the likes of Ralph Stanley and John Pennell with pop songs by Shawn Colvin, Karla Bonoff, and the Beatles, her music increasingly resembles that of the post-bluegrass Ricky Skaggs. Much of it isn’t really bluegrass anymore, but acoustic country-folk performed with the former genre’s feeling and instrumentation. The fireworks of her early fiddle-contest days are pared down to lyrical obbligatos to complement the songs, and there’s more piano than banjo, or at least an equal amount.
Two of the new tracks on this album take Krauss even further off her former path, mostly through her treatment of improbable material, like Bad Company’s ”Oh, Atlanta,” a song whose blues format she never pushes far enough. And on ”Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” a slowed reworking of the Foundations’ 1967 hit, there’s a conga drum, but no banjo, an understated mandolin, and only one true solo-from Krauss’ soulful fiddle. It’s as pretty as a muted Kodachrome, but so tastefully restrained that it might as well be a religious hymn. Likewise, the production has the ambiance of a contemporary Christian record.
It’s only on the third new cut that you hear Krauss at her rootsiest and finest: In singing the Cox Family’s ”Broadway,” she injects a true homesickness in her high lonesome vocal. Coming from the bluegrass genre, where fire in the belly is a foregone conclusion, Krauss ought to know that to douse the fire in pop is to cut out its very heart. Refinement has its virtues but only to a point. Perhaps it’s time for Krauss to rethink her strategy for avoiding mainstream success. B+