Slave to the Song Print
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 19 March 2002 18:00
Ron Block doesn’t like the spotlight, and that makes him a perfect fit for the world’s most popular bluegrass band, Alison Krauss & Union Station. “The whole concept of my playing is to enhance the sound of the band and not draw attention to myself unnecessarily,” said Block, the band’s guitarist, banjo player, and most frequent songwriter. “I look at myself as a band member.”

That’s not false modesty, but an earnest and dogged belief that the music must come first. If the songs are strong and real, everything else falls away. “You may never be noticed,” Block said, “but the band will be heard.”

Alison Krauss & Union Station have certainly grabbed the public’s ears. Spurred by the soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou? (which featured all the band’s members), bluegrass is enjoying a newfound popularity. (O Brother shocked the music industry first by getting nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy, and then winning last month.)

Krauss and Union Station have made names for themselves on bluegrass’ “fringe,” to use Block’s word, bringing a more experimental approach to the genre by mixing traditional and contemporary songs with nods to pop music, all highlighted by Krauss’ captivating soprano.

But fame hasn’t changed the band’s outlook or approach, as the Quad Cities will hear on Sunday when Krauss and Union Station play a show at the Adler Theatre.

Block said he thinks audiences – whether they favor country music or its edgier cousin, alt-country – are looking for something more real, “closer to the roots.” Typically, he said, acoustic music such as bluegrass has flourished commercially when country strays far from its origins, alienating listeners.

Part of the charm of Krauss and Union Station is that they don’t concern themselves with popularity. Krauss’ records – whether they’re with Union Station or her solo outings featuring the band’s members – aren’t consciously built for singles or sales. “We never even talk about what’ll be the single or video” until an album’s finished, he said.

Most bands, Block said, try to gauge the public’s fickle tastes and end up falling flat because they abandon the heart of the music. “They’re basing the music on what they think the public wants,” he said. “You’re not looking at the music first.”

Instead, the music and songs are key for Krauss.

While Block has written more Union Station songs than any other member, Krauss and her outfit generally work with material written by others. “Alison is a great song finder,” Block said. “Alison is a song magnet. They just sort of come to her.” But Block stressed that the process is more work than luck. “She’s always on the lookout.” The band’s strength is its gift for arrangement, and the ability to find and express the essence of songs.

That’s resulted in platinum sales (a rarity for bluegrass), critical acclaim, and industry kudos for Krauss and her standing band. The singer and fiddler and Union Station collected three Grammys in February for last year’s record New Favorite, and members also shared in statuettes for two awards given to the O Brother soundtrack.

Block, who joined Union Station in 1991, said that he’s slowly warmed to the spotlight that such recognition has brought. “I used to be very quiet,” he said. These days, “I’m usually the last one on the bus because I’m talking with people.”

His emergence also resulted in a solo album last year, the well-received collection of gospel songs Faraway Land on the Rounder label. But the project didn’t start out for public consumption; Block had to be prodded to do it.

“My record came out of years of doing Christmas tapes for my family,” Block said. In 1997, “I put a whole bunch of time into it.” It was a friend who pushed Block to transform the personal project into something more. “Why don’t you just put out a record?” the friend said. “You put a whole bunch of time into this for nothing.”

Block’s playing style is firmly rooted in traditional bluegrass defined by Earl Scruggs, but he augments it with flourishes from jazz and rock. (Some of his favorite artists are electric jazz guitarists Pat Metheny and Larry Carlton, and influences include B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Joni Mitchell. His CD player recently hosted AC/DC.)

“There’s a base in my playing that’s very traditional,” Block said. Paraphrasing a music writer, he added: “The body is traditional, but the dress is new.”

The same might be said of Krauss and Union Station, and few have complained about the fit.

Alison Krauss & Union Station will perform at the Adler Theatre on Sunday, March 24, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $23.50 and $26.50.