“Let Me Touch You For A While” Allison Krauss Creates Intimacy Amongst the Disenfranchised

There it was one day -- propped against my doorway in West Hollywood -- a plain brown cardboard box like so many others. Anonymous. Almost closed to what was inside, normally heralding not much, so not wanting to make any promises either.

Slit the packing tape and looked at the humble little cassette inside marked Union Station in thick black marker. "Union Station… hmmm, whatever."

A note inside said,"If you like it, we'd love to have you do the liner notes…" and so, vanity played to, I drew a bath and took the boom box into the tiny beige-tiled bathroom that was my refuge in that executive single which was really just the world's most spacious closet.

What I heard almost electrocuted me: pure and high and silvery and golden. This was a voice that's all filigrees and nuance, emotion beyond what existed in the experience of a very young girl. A young girl. That was the key. Because the sadness and the ache, steeped in this almost phosphorescent innocence, seemed both insurmountable yet utterly, ultimately survivable.

But there, in the steamy, swirling environment of bath oil and clouds of moistness, it wasn't just a wash of emotions, I was soaking in it. Transported through every heartache I'd ever had; thinking about all the lost moments and opportunities; considering that which was before me in the music's wake. Sometimes records are just entertainment, other times they're aural catharsis.

So it was in the throat of this Illinois teen, a bluegrass prodigy and fiddler who could break your heart just as easy with her fingers as her sparkling soprano.

I wrote those liner notes; you bet I did. And when I met Allison Krauss at Nashville's famed bluegrass outpost The Station Inn, she said it read like a romance novel -- which made me feel awful, but she said it was compliment to be sure.

I've Got That Old Feeling went on to win a Grammy. And when she earned her first platinum album, in a rare moment of graciousness in a business of "all me, all the time," she saw that I received a platinum award.

Alison Krauss, a whiz kid who loved Bad Company. Alison Krauss, a girl who barely exhaled Keith Whitley's aching "When You Say Nothing At All" -- and swept the CMA Awards as an outsider. Alison Krauss, a woman for whom the music is what truly mattered.

But women -- turning from wunderteen to absolute adult in a room that values youth above all else -- have a whole other place at the table. It's a trick not suited to many, undertaken by very few and accomplished by even less.

As a musician, Alison Krauss was jaw-dropping. As a vocalist, nonpareil. As a woman -- one who shed many pounds of baby softness and blossomed into a certified babe along the way -- there was ground to cover, terms to define and an aversion to the overt sexualization and pandering that many call "marketing."

And just how does one grow up an angel of the honky tonks and hollers, when one's grasp is instinctual not grounded in real life experience? Time, perhaps. A marriage that doesn't make it. Real life -- and the room to her grow her music as she sees fit. For this is more than a muse with a set of gossamer pipes, Alison Krauss is a genuine musical current.

Just how. Just when. Looming, yet impenetrable. The kind of hand you can't rush, can't force. Just exhale and patience and faith. Then one day, you turn on the car radio -- and there it is, the moment so profound it'll take you to your knees. Know it's coming. Trust the artist.

I was killing time in Vegas, a hollow city that's all promise and no delivery. Between an awards show that had gone very well and a major interview with a publication that shall remain nameless. So I did the thing those who wish to be lost beyond the masses often do: I drove. All the way to Arizona. And in one of those areas of coverage, there it was -- wafting out of the rent-a-mosquito's speakers -- "Let Me Touch You For A While." Fragile beauty. Tentative outreach. The fear of looking stupid. The terror of not connecting. The promise of healing something larger. The moment of utter possibility. All encased in Union Station's always tasteful musicianship -- a velvet cushion for this glittering outreach from one broken winged dreamer to another battered survivor of the conflict that is human hearts versus pride.

Alison Krauss, telling it like it is. Suggesting a balm that reaches deeper than mere words. Offering something that can make a difference. IF… If the other person can reach back. That other damaged soul, torn and frayed at the edges, faded by the disappointment, off balance from the not knowing.

It's a giant puddle of recriminations, of faltering desire, a lack of faith in the other's attraction. Can vulnerability truly be that without guile? Or is it a pose? And what might they want? And yet, hope and the hunger for gentle human touch spring eternal… that connection, flesh to flesh, the traction and friction that reminds us we're alive, that there's a world beyond words where two life forces entwine into one whole and release that badness, that madness, that sadness to the darkness, to be sent skyward where it will dissipate and come back as a rain that might do more good than tears.

And so the acoustic guitar with a haunted muskiness finds a circular pattern, the sound of footsteps on an empty late night street. It's the echo of every loss -- and it chases after you like a ghost, something distant, pale, yet real and beckoning. It is the moment of capitulation… where one more moment is less tolerable than the notion that rejection is a stake. From the very first line -- "It's been a long time coming, as you shed a lonesome tear…" -- it's obvious that our braver newer world comes with its own fortresses that keep the danger of hurt out, even as they insulate us from the very connection that makes us more alive. Does the unknown countenance, or barely known visage, buffer the risk -- or merely teflon the illusion from the graffiti of cracked character and the chinks of human failings?

Both consumed in their own certainty that the other might not, would not. Each believing that what they have is too old, too tired, too worn to ever connect full-on -- except for that one germ of hope that refuses to be extinguished deep inside the woman willing to risk the darkest tags our society has to offer to make that last final attempt.

Don't think that she isn't as devastated as the object of her concentration. Confessing, "I'm gonna ruin my black mascara…" as she ponders the abyss of her alienation, she recognizes the other's reeling balk, with a ruminative paintbrush she captures his truth, too: "the flame no longer flickers/ you're feeling just like a fool/ you keep staring into your
liquor/ wondering what to do…"

Funny thing about "Let Me Touch You For A While," it's four months later -- and still it haunts me. On late night car rides, where there aren't even highway lights. Alone at a keyboard, trying to make sense from the daily rush of what happened to this one or that. In the morning, drinking Waffle House coffee and considering the future.

We've survived 9/11. Somehow. But can we survive the moats and trenches we dig between each other. What's the cost of the separation? Can we lose our souls? Our hearts? Our minds? Because this may be a song about a woman picking up a man in a bar. But it's not about sweat for sweat's sake, the cheap release of rage against cotton sheets or the glisten that is bodies lit up by varigated neon flashing beyond a motel parking lot. No, in the moment, in the potential of a glimpse into another's weakness, there's a strength… a willingness to reach out, even if it's only for a moment or several.

There's a gentleness to this merging -- the tenderness of the lonely, needing to remember what that blood in their veins is for. Who wants to be the human carnage, the white bones bleached to a beyond-Clorox white, dry and rough and brittle? And if you remove the sense of appreciation that is the touch of the truly longing, then you remove the sense of senses.

The senses… more so than common sense. The senses, to be indulged and submerged, to lift you up on waves of something greater than two lonely hearts trying to fight back the tears and the years and the aches and the doubts, long enough to get to the morning and feel a little warmer, a little closer to something bigger than the body beside them.

Listening to Krauss' voice spiraling up, with the teasing mockery of the desparate yet bottomline, she offers something less than sublime: "I know a way to make you laugh/ at that cowgirl/ as she's walking out your door…" With that flash of passion, of fire, she mocks the obvious girlprey that most men on the prowl feast on. It is light and ironic, spunky -- and it says, "I'm inon the joke, cowboy, make a smarter choice… Find redemption and release and heaven and calm."

Just as you're about to write Krauss off as the kind of girl who knows how men really are, the kind who bust you right open and leave you psychically splayed on the bar, she circles back, leans close enough to smell the perfume and sweat on the back of her neck, feel the softness of her hair as she once again levels her intent and her willingness to find a commoner ground. "I know a way to make you smile/ just let me whisper things you've never heard before…"

This isn't some cheap come-on from barfly to one-eyed soldier of the night. It's a deeper kind of communion, one from so deep it'll drown you. And the sort of prayer to what's best about all of us that there's no prurience involved -- merely two people trying to hold back the twinge of whatever's gone for whatever's left.

Jerry Douglas' dobro weeps blood and rose petals and thorns over the melody, rising up like illusionary oil slicks on the road. The notes fall like ripples in that pond of pain -- and roll towards the shore, where hopefully someone will warm them, wrap them in something soft and lift them towards where they need to be.

There's a strength to Krauss' quaver… a sense of knowing something more, of being a woman of greater resolve and conviction than to surrender her ability to find that gift of merging, where the sum defies the pieces -- the pieces falling in jagged shards from a sky that's too close to the ground, but still leaving the stars just beyond one's reach. With "Let Me Touch You For A While," Krauss pulls one from the heavens. That they scatter the Milky Way in their fumbling tentativeness is only unintentional.

-- Holly Gleason
16 September 2002