April 10, 2007
A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection
In 1995, Alison Krauss had her mainstream breakthrough success with “When You Say Nothing At All”, which was her band’s contribution to a Keith Whitley tribute album. It became a surprise radio hit, and consumers bought her “hits collection” that featured the track, Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection in droves. In the twelve years since that first compilation, Krauss has released four studio sets and a live album, all of which have been certified gold or platinum.
She’s been long overdue for another collection, but how do you put together one for an artist that has gotten little radio play and whose core fans already own each album? Rather than make a quick buck by slapping on some new tracks to old album cuts, an annoyance that The 9513 called labels on a few weeks ago, Rounder has taken the novel approach of collecting Krauss’ contributions to soundtracks, tribute albums and other artist’s records over the past twelve years, with five fantastic previously unreleased tracks as a bonus. The result is one of the strongest compilations I’ve heard in years.
First, the old stuff. Most of the best of Krauss’ work outside Union Station is here, from her Grammy-nominated rendition of “Baby Mine”, which was the best track on The Best of Country Sing the Best of Disney, to her a cappella “Down To The River To Pray” from O Brother Where Art Thou? Her chilling contributions to Cold Mountain, which she performed on the Academy Awards, are here as well – “The Scarlet Tide” and “You Will Be My Ain True Love”, the latter of which features support from Sting.
Her versatility is evident in the diverse list of artist she collaborates with here, which includes Brad Paisley (“Whiskey Lullaby”), The Chieftains (“Molly Ban”), James Taylor (“How’s the World Treating You”) and John Waite (“Missing You” and “Lay Down Beside Me.”) She sounds as comfortable with her voice wrapped around the pop melodies of the Waite tracks as she does having an all-star bluegrass throw-down with Union Station, Tony Rice, Sam Bush and Stuart Duncan (“Sawing on the Strings.”)
As a carrying case for much of her stray work, the compilation would already be worth the money, but it is the new tracks that elevate the project to greatness. The first is a cover of the Don Williams hit, “I’m Just a Country Boy”, which she recasts as “You’re Just a Country Boy.” Like she did on that first compilation of twelve years ago with the Foundations hit “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”, she turns a wistful love song into something darker and more desperate, drawing out the deeper shades of sadness that are in the lyrics with her performance.
This is followed by a trio of songs that explore death and the afterlife. “Simple Love” finds Krauss singing about the death of a man who lived simply, but with great love, and wishing that when it is her time to go, she can look back and say she did the same. “Jacob’s Dream” is a heartbreaking mountain tale of two boys who get lost in the woods, which end either in tragedy or glory, depending on how strong your faith is.
Best of all is “Away Down the River”, which is sung from the perspective of a person who has died, and is trying to comfort those left behind. Having just lost my father two months ago, I’m finding great comfort in this particular performance, which assures that those we’ve lost “are standing waiting with all who’ve gone before”, and we will see them again.
I’m usually dismissive of compilations, so it’s sheer coincidence that two of the best I’ve ever heard happen to have been released just as I’ve started doing album reviews regularly. I simply cannot recommend this highly enough. It’s a flawless collection by one of the most significant artists of our time, and proof that at its best, the music of the mountains and the country can also be fine art.