Life on the road for Alison Krauss and Union Station is remarkably normal for a group of musicians with more accolades than shelf space. Krauss is the most decorated female musician of all time, winning 26 Grammy Awards in her quarter-century career. With her 17th, she surpassed Aretha Franklin.
Dobro player Jerry Douglas has 12 of his own, eight of those from playing with Krauss. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Dan Tyminski became famous as George Clooney's voice double in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Ron Block (banjo/guitar) and Barry Bales (bass) are regarded as among the best musicians in bluegrass.
So it's a bit of a surprise to imagine this band of individual icons gearing up for a show with PBR and chicken wings and Johnny Paycheck crooning on the radio. It's even more of a shock to check Krauss' iPod and discover her rocking out to Foreigner and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
"I keep going, 'What's all this about? How do you listen to all this stuff and then you get on stage and whisper?'" laughs Douglas, chatting with City Paper from an early August gig in New Jersey. "She's really an AC/DC, Def Leppard, and Bad Company fan. I think she gets enough of that out of her system that she can go on tage and sing, 'Let Me Touch You For Awhile' and all that other kind of stuff."
Krauss and Block share a tour bus, which Douglas dubs "the incubator" for its warm temperature, while the rest of the boys hang out in "the meat locker."
"You could hang meat in this bus, it's so cold all the time," says Douglas, who says the vegetarian vibe in Krauss' rig is a far cry from the pizza and hot wings in the meat locker. When it's his turn to choose the playlist, Douglas digs on Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, while Bales is more likely to throw in Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver.
"It's different time zones from the front of our bus to the back," he explains. "The cerebral brainiacs get the jazz up front, and the Pabst Blue Ribbon man [Bales] gets in the back."
On stage, however, Union Station is anything but disjointed. After a seven-year break following 2004's Lonely Runs Both Ways, the group reunited last year to record Paper Airplane, released in April. Krauss famously recorded and toured with Robert Plant in the interim, while Douglas hit the road with Elvis Costello.
"I was the one doing the head banging, while she and Robert were out there singing ethereal vibrato love songs," says Douglas. "Dan was out with his bluegrass band, so we were all doing completely different things. I think we brought a little of each of those back with us, but it didn't change the personality of the band. As soon as the five of us play together, we don't sound like we do with anybody else."
Recording Paper Airplane wasn't a complete breeze — the band reunited, full of excitement to be back together, but the sessions only resulted in about half the amount of polished songs they'd hoped for.
"We started running into the same problems we've had on every record, just not agreeing on, 'Is it good enough?' Most of us didn't think it was," says Douglas.
Without a title track or theme for the album, Krauss went to songwriter R.L. Castleman looking for songs. Castleman claimed he'd been lacking inspiration. But after a visit with Krauss, he soon called her with "Paper Airplane." The haunting track immediately leaped to the front of the band's list and sits first on the album. Peter Rowan's "Dust Bowl Children," Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day," and the Jackson Browne classic "My Opening Farewell" also made the cut, with distinctive Union Station touches.
"The second recording session was definitely our favorite batch of songs," says Douglas. "We went through the songs we'd passed on and some resurfaced, and we went, 'Now we're on the trail. Now we know what we want this record to look like.' We cut a lot more songs than we ever have for a record before, but I think the cream of the crop did rise to the top."
The quintet's alchemy is due in large part to Douglas' innovative slide dobro playing, often lauded for its harmonious way of accentuating Krauss' vocals. Douglas has contributed significantly to the dobro's acceptance as a common instrument in bluegrass. When he first emerged, Josh Graves of Flatt & Scruggs and Mike Auldridge of the Seldom Scene were the only dobro players on the circuit. Douglas added a jazz fusion element to the style that captured audience's ears, and it's now commonplace to find a dobro in a traditional bluegrass outfit.
"It's a really emotional instrument. You can set up a mood and accent the dynamic raises and create tension in certain places," explains Douglas. "I try to think like a singer, to accent lyrics and places where the singer is trying to get a point across and make something more clear. I feel like I'm framing them a little bit, and I try not to get in the way. I listen for what they're doing with the lyrics."
Few groups can boast such celebrated singers and musicians in one ensemble, and Union Station clearly remains each of the players' favorite pursuit. Krauss turned 40 in July, choosing to celebrate quietly with a regular tour stop in Cape Cod.
"At 40, you really start knowing what you're all about," says Douglas, who turned 55 in May. "At 50, you know what you've done wrong and you try to fix it."
So far, Union Station seems to have done everything right. But maybe they'll put aside the hot-picking and stunningly beautiful vocals and head in a new direction, a la AC/DC.
"We're all into playing the 'whispering stuff,' but we've got this underlying attitude of angst," jokes Douglas. "It's a rock band trying to break out of sheep's clothing."