The Infinite Jukebox: Alison Krauss’s ‘When You Say Nothing At All’

Until I got married and my wife put her foot down very firmly, I went through a phase of devotedly watching the Country Music Awards show from Nashville every year. Before you start to object, let me assure you that this had nothing to do with an unexpected love for the music, even though I had a phase in the Nineties of exploring the melodies of some of the more modern female country singers.
No, it all started one weekend away in Shropshire with a mate and his wife, the Awards show on BBC2, the wine open on the coffee table and a great deal of sarcastic backchat from both of us, about the music, the singers, the introductions (some of which really not needing our gleeful snarkiness to turn them into minor masterpieces of unintended hilarity).
So I’d tune in every year, bottle already open, open-armedly welcoming the chance of piss-take, whilst on the serious side hoping for more occasions on which the long-haired, tall, slim, short buckskin-skirted, knee-length booted Suzy Bogguss might do another enthusiastic and bouncy dance. Or even sing, I wasn’t fussed.
But into even frivolity like this a serious point must also intrude. That first occasion, at Paul and Jane’s, I saw a singer I’d never heard of sing a song I’ve never heard. And on the strength of that one performance, that silenced all of us by its beauty, and by the emotional impact of the song, I bought a compilation album by Alison Krauss, just because it featured ‘When you say nothing at all’.
Although Ronan ‘Pub Singer’ Keating covered it and had a UK no. 1 single with it, I’m astonished still that ‘When you say nothing at all’ hasn’t become a modern standard, a song attempted by all and sundry. Somehow, it’s resisted becoming as well known as it should be, and remains a song that’s almost a private pleasure.
The song was written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, who thought it was ok but nothing special. But it was first recorded by Keith Whitley, who took it to the top of the Country music singles chart in 1989, before dying of alcohol poisoning. Alison Krauss was a noted singer and bluegrass fiddle player who recorded it with her band, Union Station, in 1995 for a tribute album to Whitley. It was never intended as anything more, but people heard it, people loved it, it got airplay it spread and it was her first single hit, reaching no 3.
Which was why she was on the Country Music Awards show that Saturday night, and why Paul and I both stopped in our tracks to listen to something we immediately understood was special.
‘When you say nothing at all’ is a love song that puts into words how much more is said without words. It’s amazing, Krauss sings, how you can speak right to my heart, without saying a word. It’s in one sense a conventional sentiment, but the song brings it to an extraordinary depth, by making all of it about silence, and the inability of words to define this collaboration of minds and souls.
And then the chorus bursts open with all the ways that love eschews verbal communication. The smile on your face lets me know that you love me, there’s a truth in your eyes saying you’ll never lead me, the touch of your hand says you’ll catch me whenever I fall. You say it best when you say nothing at all.
Those who only know Keating’s version not only do not know the delicacy that Krauss brings to the song, her deft, pure voice flowing with the love the words themselves do not say, but they do not know an original line, as the second verse leads into the repetition of that chorus. Old Mr Webster, she sings, referring to the famous American dictionary, could never define what’s being said between your heart and mine. Nothing so oblique for us poor stupid Britons, who will never understand a reference to a master wordsmith being lost for words.
And the surprising strength that she brings to that chorus, full of the force of her conviction that this is where her love abides, the band reinforcing her on those first two line.
I think that night in 1995 she may have sung to just a solo piano accompaniment, trusting in her voice to deliver a song of such silent profundity.
Overall, Ms Krauss is too pure country for my mixed tastes, just as I retain very few of the CDs or tapes from that long-ago fascination, but her version of this song still moves me like few others, and without it there would be no point to have an Infinite Jukebox at all.

2 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Alison Krauss’s ‘When You Say Nothing At All’

  1. A lovely one! I absolutely adore this song – there are various versions out there by her – there is a transatlantic sessions one and as you say a Union Station one . There is also a version she sang to Michelle and Barack Obama when he was president. He has taste in that department as well! She has an amazingly pure voice as the songs on ‘Raising Sand’ with Robert Plant show. Her version of Richard Thompson’s ‘Dimming of the Day’ is really worth hunting down as well.
    Great pick for this time of year, thank you!

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