NASHVILLE — Alison Krauss stepped up to the microphone, opened her mouth and…nothing happened.
Nearly 30 years into her career, the one-time fiddle-playing child prodigy turned multiplatinum star had lost her ethereal soprano. “I’d go onstage and it would shut down. In the studio my throat would close up,” she said. “That was a pain in the neck. Literally.”
In 2013, she was diagnosed with a condition called dysphonia (a general term that encompasses several vocal issues including hoarseness) and forced to cancel several performances with her bluegrass band Union Station.
Frustrated, she sought out a voice teacher, Ron Browning; her sessions with him were “like getting a shot in the arm about singing again.” After working with Browning, Krauss was able to finish Windy City (due Friday), her first solo record in 18 years — and a project she started three-and-a-half years ago.
Krauss made several records during those 18 years, including three studio albums with Union Station and Raising Sand with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. But starting a solo album requires a different kind of motivation. “I feel like it’s my duty to only do what I’m inspired to do, or it’s not truthful.”
Windy City was inspired by two different sources: the photographs of Bob Richardson, and producer Buddy Cannon. She’d sung harmony on records Cannon produced for artists including Jamey Johnson, and realized that she wanted to make an album with him at the helm. Cannon’s response was immediate.
“I said, ‘Hell, yes,'” Cannon remembered. They fired up the computer in Cannon’s office and began searching for songs to cover.
“We talked about only having songs that were older than me, but we ended up changing that when we figured out how old I was,” Krauss, 45, joked. “Actually I thought it was more important that they all fit together. I think they did.”
A couple of their choices, like John Hartford’s Gentle on My Mind and the Cindy Walker/Eddy Arnold song You Don’t Know Me, are familiar to the casual country music listener. But the majority of songs Krauss and Cannon chose for Windy City are lesser-known gems, like River in the Rain, a Roger Miller-penned song for a Broadway musical about Huckleberry Finn, and the title track, which was recorded by bluegrass duo The Osborne Brothers 45 years ago.
Though Windy City took years to complete, the finished product is worth the wait. It’s an early contender for Album of the Year honors; a lush, timeless-sounding album that’s held together by Krauss’ gossamer voice.
An underlying thread of melancholy runs through the record, but Krauss didn’t notice a theme until she was done recording. “I thought the record had loss, but it was still strong,” she said. “It was a sad record, but it wasn’t desperate.”