Appalachian folk music developed from a mixture of English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh, and has been an influential part of America’s history. Folk music has been a way certain political, social, and cultural injustices have been brought into the light. Since the 1700s, folk music has evolved into many different genres and had a revival of its own. Many modern artists stay true to the early roots of Appalachian folk music. One group of artists that comes to mind is Alison Krauss and Union Station.
Their album Paper Airplane, which debuted in Spring of 2011, was an eleven song testament to challenges and perseverance of everyday people. Most of the album was melancholy and heavy-hearted; yet, with each song, there were always hints of hope. Out of all the places it could be listened to, it sounds the best played in the background on a day at the lake. On a cloudy, rainy day, the songs only sound like sadness, and it’s very hard to listen to. On a beautiful sunny day, the songs sound like hope. It is perfect to listen to for any mood and any type of day.
Paper Airplane is an incredible album; although, not their best. It is Alison Krauss’ 12th album; however, Raising Sands (2007) is by far her best one. This album did not gain much recognition in the United States, but it was a huge hit in Europe, especially with Scandinavians and the United Kingdom. The album failed expectation mainly because, whether the audience be country music fans or pop music fans, folk music is still only enjoyed by few. The market for traditional folk music is small.
Mike Shipley was the main engineer and mixer for the album, and was recorded by Rounder Records. Rounder Records is an independent company that began in the 1970s by three college friends. Their main goal was to not become a commercial brand. They take a lot of pride remaining true to their roots in bluegrass, acoustic music from New Orleans all the way to Memphis among all the trials and tribulations of the changing music industry. Concord Music Group Inc. was the company that manufactured and distributed the album.
This album won Alison Krauss and Union Station a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. It is a very deserving album of those Grammies. The way it captures simple, small-town, country life is really good. It really feels like that is the life everyone should have. The album design is simple. On the cover, in a sepia coloring, the whole band is in old-time clothing, against a white sheet backdrop. The back cover is of a barn and a bush off in the distance. Inside, the booklet has similar images of scenery and of the band members themselves. What was most representative of the overall message and feeling of the album, as well as how it represents Appalachia, is the music video for “Paper Airplanes” the albums headlining song.
The video is filmed (all in sepia color) in a field, most likely farm land, and it shows clips of a train, barns, an old country house, and scripture carved into wood. Alison is in a simple dress and spends most of the video swinging on a tree swing. The band is playing in the background under a white sheet. The overall theme is very 1930s. The song itself is about the how fleeting love is and how quick it is to die.
Most of the songs on the album are performed by Alison doing vocals, piano, and/or fiddle. Union Station is made up of Barry Bales on vocals and bass, Ron Block on banjo, Dan Tyminski on mandolin, and Jerry Douglas on dobro. Their extensive use of instruments like the banjo and mandolin reflect their roots in Appalachian folk music. This album symbolically represents the struggles faced by Appalachian people and how they can survive them with love and hope. It really focuses on the challenges that come with relationships between people.
One of the best songs on the album is “Dust Bowl Children”. The song associates closely with the Appalachian region. The following lyrics,
“They said in California, there was work of every kind
Well the only job I ever got out there was waiting on a welfare line
Once I had a dollar, once I had a dream
But now all the work is being done by a big ole machine…”
represent some of the hardships faced by many workers (and their families) in the Appalachian region. Many industries treated their workers horribly, forcing them to work in unsafe conditions, with unfair, dishonest wages. Plus, advancing technology reduced the need for workers. Jobs were being taken over by machines. Even though the song deals with the troubles faced by people affected by the Dust Bowl, the need for money to survive and being replaced by machines was a universal theme felt by miners and other such workers.
Another song that relates to people and locations within the Appalachian region is “Bonita and Bill Butler”.
“I grew up in the scantling yards of Wheeling West Virginia
A wheelhouse cub looking for an open door
In the packet ways a Sweeney wed the keel of my Bonita
Just two months from her timbers till she moored
I paid the fare in billet on her maiden voyage to Vicksburg
And talked my way to hand the tiller on the course
In her planks I carved a notch and sealed the vow “Be my Bonita”
And her dowry was my life between the shores”
The song makes reference to West Virginia, Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Dixie. These areas were of importance to the Appalachian region, as well as to the southern United States. Farm work was a big industry before the Civil War up until the 1920’s or so. Then coal industries and other industrial industries took over.
This album does a wonderful job of constructing the Appalachian region as a normal place to live. That the troubles people face here can be faced by people anywhere. Overall, Paper Airplane was a collection of songs that took a lot of time and effort, and a lot of writers, to complete. Each song shows the heart the writer put into it. It is easy to listen to and is perfect for almost every occasion. As far a traditional sounding modern Appalachian folk music goes, it doesn’t get much better than Alison Krauss and Union Station.
“About – Alison Krauss.” Alison Krauss. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2016.
“Appalachian Folk Music.” McGraw-Hill. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2016.
“History.” Rounder Records. N.p., 2015. Web. 26 July 2016.