Alison Krauss could let the fact that she was answering the door earlier this year of her Nashville, Tenn., home at 8 a.m. with her hair styled and makeup done imply that she’d risen early and knocked out her beauty regimen. But as this celebrated singer and fiddle-playing bandleader — the closest thing to a pop star that the contemporary bluegrass scene has produced — led the way into the den, she couldn’t resist making a confession: “I haven’t even washed my face!”
Krauss’ loose, flaxen waves and smoky eye shadow were, in fact, left over from a Randy Travis tribute show the night before. To be a good citizen of the Nashville music community requires consistently showing up to pay homage to its luminaries, and to tradition itself, at such ceremonial affairs, but Krauss, 46, is an especially coveted presence: She can be counted on to interpret other artists’ repertoires with reverential grace.
Krauss is three decades into her recording career, which is often the time when performers who have passed through the country spotlight feel the need to rub away commercial gloss and reinvent themselves as models of grounded artistry by adopting approaches that seem older, sturdier, unsullied by fleeting trends. But Krauss has actually been a symbol of rooted finesse all along. What is there for an acknowledged old soul to do on the first album of her 40s? On “Windy City,” Krauss ventures into territory she has never explored — lushly orchestrated classic country covers — with a breezy, modern self-awareness that sets her nostalgic gestures apart.
Arriving six years after her previous release, “Paper Airplane,” nearly a decade on from her hugely successful partnership with Robert Plant, “Raising Sand,” and 17 years beyond her last solo outing, “Forget About It,” the new album represents her Capitol Records debut after a long relationship with Rounder Records. Krauss got her professional start in her midteens, which isn’t unheard-of in a bluegrass world that nurtures its prodigies, and has since alternated between solo albums and band projects with Union Station, an immaculate luxury model of a string band featuring the dobro player Jerry Douglas, the singer-guitarist Dan Tyminski, the banjo and guitar player Ron Block and the bassist Barry Bales, and occasional detours like the one with Plant, which picked up five Grammys.
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Krauss is a connoisseur of songs, not a songwriter, and her enchantment with the compositions she has culled ordinarily sets the tone of her self-produced albums. This time, though, she chose to pursue a partnership that could yield a particular vibe. She lent her voice to a wistful duet version of “Make the World Go Away” on Jamey Johnson’s 2012 collection of classic Hank Cochran country songs, and the elegant shuffle echoed easeful studio performances of the Nashville Sound era. She zeroed in on the project’s seasoned producer, Buddy Cannon, who had a low-key way of drawing her out at the microphone.
“When I sang for him,” she said, “I noticed that there was such a desire to perform for him, and that doesn’t always come so much. Usually you’re kind of searching your own navel all the time for your inspiration.”
When Krauss and Cannon began sifting through potential songs on his office computer, she stipulated that they steer clear of go-to country standards. “I’m just one big B-side,” she quipped.
Drawing heavily from the ‘50s and ‘60s catalogs of country and bluegrass stylists like Willie Nelson, Mac Wiseman, Brenda Lee, Glen Campbell and Eddy Arnold, Krauss and Cannon rounded out their selections with a couple of songs that were actually from her lifetime, one of which, “Dream of Me,” she recalled hearing at a bluegrass festival in her youth but didn’t realize that Cannon had written.
In language and chord structure, the vintage selections seem simple next to the bulk of Krauss’ repertoire.
“There’s a certain feeling, a mystery about songs that are older than you, and I love that,” Krauss said.
The recording process began smoothly enough: “I just get great players in there and sit back and listen to what they do,” Cannon said. Krauss requested horns like those that Merle Haggard sometimes used, and for once, her fiddle fills are dwarfed by the frequent, pillowy flourishes of a string section.
The trouble arose when it came time to record Krauss’ vocals.
“One day she’d come in to sing, and if she wasn’t hearing it the way she wanted to hear it, she’d say, ‘Today’s not the day,’” Cannon recalled. “We went in a lot of days and worked for 30 minutes and knocked off because she just said, ‘I don’t have it today.’ To me, she sounded wonderful. I mean, on her worst days, she sounds better than everybody.” Krauss explained the recurring vocal issue was “a stress reaction”: “Your voice box just kind of, ‘brrp,’ just closes up. It tightens up, and you have to loosen it up.” She turned to physical therapy, then visited the noted voice coach Ron Browning, who suggested she “stop striving and just be.” “I felt like I was 17 again,” she marveled. “It was amazing! I’ve given people lessons with him as gifts.”
As a young singer, Krauss tended to use the full force of her rarefied instrument, but by the time she scored a mid-90s country breakthrough with “When You Say Nothing at All,” she was artfully recalibrating her approach, softening her attack, applying beguiling, breathy shading.
“I was talking to Jerry Douglas about this,” she said, referring to the Dobro player in Union Station, “and we were like, ‘Remember when you first started playing, and it was so much fun, and you didn’t think about anything, and you just did what you did? And then you got really wrapped up in watching what you would do to refine what you do?’”
She summarized, “I think you go from being mindless to being self-conscious, and then you want to end up being mindless again.”
Along the way, Krauss came to embody a particular feminine vocal archetype. “There’s something about how clear her tone is and how much control she has and restraint she uses,” said the country-pop singer-songwriter Cam. “She can sing bluegrass, Americana, country, across all those genres, and she can reach so many people that don’t even listen to those genres normally.”
The 8 million or so who bought the T Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou” heard Krauss sing the folk hymn “Down to the River to Pray” a cappella, with impossibly delicate vibrato; one could imagine her floating above the fleshly realm, an otherworldly vessel for earthy music. People invariably describe her as an “angel,” a word that has no room for the sort of cheeky, blues-tinged note bending she does at times on this album.
“Well, obviously, they don’t know me,” she said, swiftly brushing the perception aside. “But what a compliment.”
Contradictions are at the heart of Krauss’ sensibilities: the juxtaposition of the exquisiteness of her singing and the brawniness of the male vocal partners she chooses (in this case, Johnson, Hank Williams Jr. and others); contrasts between notions of naturalness and refinement; the tension between mastering a well-mapped musical lineage and embracing a broad-minded, pop-attuned versatility.
On the title track of the new album, Krauss displays an empathetic grasp of a longstanding country theme: anxiety about how exposure to cosmopolitanism can change a person.
“He came to you, big city, from our little country town,” she frets, “and every step he takes with you is down/You’re as cold and heartless as the chilling winds that blow/Before you freeze his heart, please let him go.”
Her reading of “River in the Rain,” from Roger Miller’s Huckleberry Finn-inspired musical “Big River,” conveys melancholy admiration of forceful, unfettered freedom. She accentuates the inner dialogue of “You Don’t Know Me,” her singing burdened with quiet resignation to keep hidden romantic desires hidden. Hinting at feelings just beneath the surface is a Krauss specialty, and such “one-sided conversations” are her “favorite subject.”
“A lot of times, women, their strength has been judged by their ability to hide emotion,” she mused.
Krauss will go only so far in analyzing her gifts and inclinations before retreating to modesty or comic relief. Asked how conscious she is of her image, she offered a goofy anecdote: Many years ago, when she was just beginning to be recognized in public, she wanted so badly to go for a swim on tour that she bought a maternity swimsuit at a garage sale, despite not being pregnant, and was, of course, spotted wearing the ill-fitting thing.
“That’s the only kind of awareness — like, ‘Oh man, I wish I would have cleaned up,’” she said, sounding far more amused than embarrassed. “But really, otherwise, you’re just doing your gig.”
Alison Krauss and David Gray: 7 p.m. Oct. 15, Outlaw Field, Idaho Botanical Garden, 2355 N. Penitentiary Road, Boise. $67.50. Ticketmaster.