What more can be said about the storied career of Alison Krauss and Union Station? Krauss has 26 Grammy wins to her name — the most for any female artist in history — and her colleagues provide the stunning canvas upon which she sonically paints. Each record is equally inspiring, beautiful and haunting, and Paper Airplane, the band’s first studio release since 2004, is no different.
Ron Block recently took some time away from dominating Russell Simmon’s Def Banjoetry Slam to answer our questions about coming together once again with Krauss and company and how the process affects him personally.
Q: Just to start, can you take us inside the process of Alison corralling the guys back together again? It’s been several years, so do you get a random phone call? Is there a Krauss phone that lights up Batman style?
A: No, I have an AKUS chip implanted in my cerebral cortex and she just pushes a button on her cell phone. Actually, I think after a certain amount of time went by it was just time to make a new record. There were schedules to juggle, songs to find, and everything else that goes with recording five people.
Q: Why so many years since the last AKUS record?
A: It just ended up working out that way. We came out with Lonely Runs Both Ways in November 2004, toured it, then Alison released A Hundred Miles or More in April 2007 and we toured that until the middle of August in 2007. The plan was to then take a year off. Making the Robert Plant record came along for Alison soon after that, with some touring once it came out.
When that was over she hadn’t actually been able to take much time off. Once we started in the direction of making a record, it took a long time to find the right songs and make the entire record, so all in all it turned into six-and-a-half years since our last band record and nearly four years since we’d toured extensively.
Q: Was it clear that the chemistry had changed in any way after that time apart?
A: I think everyone has changed in certain ways, gotten older, more experienced in what matters and what doesn’t. Viewpoints have changed. From my personal standpoint it took me most or all of the record to figure it all out, where we were going, what people wanted, what I am supposed to do, what is my role, what is my place in the band. There have been a lot of shifts externally, too, shifts in Alison’s management and booking, so everything became different and new, and there’s a learning curve in figuring those things out as well.
Q: Why do you say it took you so long to figure out what was going on this time around? Was that disorienting?
A: Well, we’ve all been apart for awhile. When people are apart they are having separate, differentiated experiences. These experiences can lead them to come to differing conclusions about the things they do in common. If a husband and wife are apart a lot, they are having a lot of different experiences, which may cause them to come to differing viewpoints about reality.
For instance, on Paper Airplane there was a shift from thinking of recording as a tracking/overdubbing process to simply doing the best to get almost everything at tracking. It is a move from seeing it as a process of getting a solid track and then painting varied colors and fixing things, to wanting it to be a single, continuous, experiential moment in time. Overdubs were still done, of course, extra guitar added here, lap steel added there. But the overall idea was to capture an entirely great moment in the first place. “Dimming of the Day” is one of the high water marks of this method on Paper Airplane.
I have been the last to move from the concept of recording as painting. And yes it was very disorienting for me, having done it so long the other way. I haven’t been out there these past few years making records with various people and seeing a different way; I’ve been doing it the way we’ve done it before. Shifts like that aren’t easy for me.
Q: Are those shifts that you’ll carry with you in your own solo work?
A: Definitely. This time off we’ve taken, and these shifts in viewpoint in others have caused quite a bit of disturbance in me, and disturbance can be good. It can be a plowing of hard ground to get ready for the future.
Q: With such a legacy for AKUS, how much discussion of this goes on within the band? Do you discuss the longevity or influence or platform?
A: Not really all that much. Our discussions are usually more about what is happening now, what we are doing in the immediate future — touring, recording. I do feel like we are moving into an entirely new era for the band. Everyone is older, gaining experience, depth, wisdom, and that reflects itself in the music. Alison’s singing has reached an entirely new level with the new record, and Dan’s as well. It has been interesting being in a band this long; I’ve been with AKUS almost as long as I’ve been married, and in many ways the band experience is similar to marriage.
Q: Can you expound on that last line — about marriage?
A: In marriage there is courtship, falling in love, commitment, and then as that initial in-love phase dies away we must learn to live with one another as we are, to trust God with — and in — the other person, and to know that no matter what happens, no matter what outer or inner circumstances bring, that initial commitment still stands.
I feel that way about AKUS, that no matter where our band goes, or no matter where each of us goes individually, I’m committed to the group both as a band and as individual people. I may sometimes kick against the goad of circumstances; I may feel down at this or that, but when the dust clears I find myself standing up with a renewed sense of knowing I am supposed to be in the band; I was meant for it, musically shaped for it.
Being in AKUS has been productive in every way, from being musically satisfying, to relationally growth-producing, to financially sustaining, and especially in my spiritual life. Figuring out my place in the band has helped me sort through a lot of junk inside of me.
Q: Just in terms of album support, what should fans expect when it comes to touring?
A: We’ll be touring essentially from the beginning of June through possible mid-October. The set will likely contain a lot from the new recording but like other tours will also feature many songs from past recordings. Our tour schedule is up and running at Alison’s website.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.