Ask Alison Krauss about her new album, and chances are she'll begin talking about a man named Buddy Cannon. Cannon is a veteran Nashville producer and songwriter who's worked with everyone from Willie Nelson to George Strait over the past 40 years. To hear Krauss tell it, he was the central inspiration and driving force behind Windy City, the singer's first solo album in 17 years out February 17th.
"Making this record was really about Buddy," Krauss tells Rolling Stone Country. "A lot of times my work comes from this place of what I call the 'inner-policeman.' You want to do a good job and do something that comes from within yourself and your standards. But as I've worked with Buddy through the years, I've found that my 'why' got attached to him when I work for him. He really makes me want to do a good job.
"Buddy's nickname in town is 'Ears,'" she continues. "In a town full of people who are all so talented, he got the nickname 'Ears.' He has such an instinct for music and is so interested in the personality of the musicians in the room. Getting to work with him again made me so inspired."
The genesis of Krauss' collaboration with Cannon can be traced back more than three years, when Cannon first noticed that Krauss had spontaneously began to show up at his office. "It was like he noticed before I did," she says of her initial spark to make a new album. Krauss recorded the tracks to Windy City around 2013, but between extensive touring with Union Station, as well as some vocal problems that forced her to stop singing for a period, it was several years before she and her label finally felt ready to release the record.
"I've never worked less on a record that took so long," jokes Krauss. "Buddy kept looking at his watch, saying, 'We have to finish this before I turn 80!' I kept telling him, 'We've still got time!' He's only in his 60s."
Windy City gathers bluegrass and country rarities and standards alike — tunes originally performed by artists including Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, Bill Monroe and the Osborne Brothers. The ornate, elegant arrangements, which include string sections and even, much to Krauss' delight, a tuba, all serve to highlight her uniquely ethereal voice.
Krauss has memories associated with nearly every one of the album's 10 songs, all of which share some sort of personal significance. She grew up listening to standards like "It's Goodbye and So Long" and "Poison Love." The title track, "Windy City" is a nostalgic song that the singer remembers fondly from her days playing bluegrass festivals.
"On this album, I wanted to sing songs that are older than I am," says Krauss, who over the past three decades has cemented her reputation as one of the very finest interpreters of traditional country music. "There's a real romance in singing other people's stories."
Recording an album of songs whose lifespan often predated Krauss lent itself to some revelatory moments in the studio. At one point, she suggested the song "Dream of Me" to her producer. "I said, "There's this song I want to sing that just reminded me of sitting in the audience at festivals as a kid, and I love it so much. It's called 'Dream of Me.'' And Buddy goes, "Dream of Me'? I wrote that.'"
Krauss points to the recording of "Dream of Me," which she originally wanted to cover on her very first studio album back in the mid-Eighties, as a personal highlight during the recording sessions. Cannon and his daughter both sang on the track, which, with its rollicking piano-meets-pedal-steel bounce, serves as the energetic centerpiece to the new record.
Windy City was crafted with a variety of session pros that included members of Krauss' longtime band, Union Station, including Dan Tyminski, Ron Block and Barry Bales. "My musical identity is really tied up in the guys I play with," Krauss says. "There's no way I go or play anywhere or sing anything that isn't influenced by the guys I've played with for so long. Everything I do is influenced by them. No matter what I do or who I play with, they go where I go."
Now that the album is complete, Krauss — who holds the record for the most Grammy wins ever by a female artist — has no doubts about reviving her solo career with an album that digs deep into her musical past. "It was a beautiful thing that happened," she says of Windy City. "Now it feels like this album has always been there. It's a really sweet feeling."