When New Favorite came out in 2001, that was my introduction to Alison Krauss and Union Station. Talk about feeling late to the party. I had no real concept of bluegrass, assuming it was hillbilly music like dueling banjos and that was the extent of it.
But when I got my hands on New Favorite, I was so moved by what I heard. And I want to try and be specific about what I heard that caught my attention. It seemed the instrumentation in that record came together like a choir–each part was its own distinct voice–and it was beautiful.
Jerry Douglas’ dobro, Alison’s fiddle, Ron Block’s banjo, Barry Bales’ bass and Dan Tyminski’s mandolin, guitar and vocals (he’s the guy who sang George Clooney’s “Man of Constant Sorrows” from O Brother, Where Art Thou?) blend together into an uncommonly cohesive and smooth soundtrack for Alison’s voice– which is hard to describe without using worn out words like angelic, beautiful, etc.
Jill LaBrack at Popmatters.com went beyond worn out words by offering this description; “Her voice is beautiful and compelling and sounds as much like hope as it does the final moments before the giving up begins.”
An analysis of the lyrics reveal that this is a record dealing mostly with themes of pain and loss and regret, and yet it does sound “as much like hope as the final moments before the giving up begins.”
Around the time I started listening to New Favorite, a dear friend of mine lost a son to suicide. As I watched this dad grieve, as I watched him mourn, as I watched him bow himself to the providence of God and rise up in anger toward wickedness of the enemy, I wanted to help.
But what could I say? What could I give? I prayed, I spent time with he and his family, but I wanted to give this man I knew to be an introvert who often processed things alone (on his touring motor bike) something that might help. There were no words, no poems, no statements to reach deep enough into his pain in those initial days of shock.
But I kept returning to the same idea. I can’t give words that will make this better. It’s too ugly right now. Maybe I can give him beauty. What can I give him that’s beautiful?
I gave him New Favorite, and I told him I wanted him to have it because it was beautiful, and in this ugly season, I thought a little beauty might comfort him.
A couple years later he took me for a ride on his bike and as we pulled away from the house, I heard that faint intro to New Favorite and we listened as we rode. He told me it hadn’t come out of his disc changer since I gave it to him, and that it brought him much comfort–the beauty of the record.
His last best memories with his son were on that bike riding through Missouri Wine country, talking about Christ. And when he misses his son, he hops on that bike and rides out to the country graveside. And when he does, he often listens to New Favorite.
It is beautiful.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).