Unlike her mainstream contemporaries, 28-year-old singer/fiddler Alison Krauss strives to stay out of the limelight. While divas like Celine Dion have become center-stage marketing monoliths, Krauss has thrived on the “music” part of the music business by concentrating on quiet collaboration with her band, Union Station.
Krauss has unassumingly collected 10 Grammies — plus a host of coveted awards from the likes of the Country Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association — by playing with the nation’s finest country and bluegrass musicians. While she boasts her own distinct sound, Krauss possesses a remarkable knack for combining her talents with other artists, as she does on her eighth and newest release, Forget About It (Rounder Records 1999) — which includes guest appearances by Sam Bush, Dolly Parton and Lyle Lovett.
The CD opens with “Stay,” offering a greeting Krauss’ own fans might have uttered: “Where have you been, my long lost friend? It’s good to see you again.” No, it’s not that Krauss has been missing: Her critically acclaimed So Long So Wrong (Rounder Records 1997) won the Best Bluegrass Album Grammy two years ago. It’s just that she and her band are such welcome visitors. Their songs aren’t the kind that jump out at you or bowl you over. Instead, they visit you where you live, sit down beside you for a spell, and swap troubled stories.
Krauss’ cool, clear vocals are warm and sincere — honey-coated but not sickly-sweet. A nonwriter who sings songs by a host of esteemed songwriters, Krauss chooses lyrics that best suit her style and voice. Overwhelmingly, she picks songs of regret — in spite of her own success, youth and happy marriage. “If the song makes me feel bad, makes me feel like crap,” she told Timothy White of Billboard magazine, “then I’m gonna do it — that’s my rule! … The Forget About It record has a sadness to it, but I like it, ’cause I think it’s the positive kind. [It’s about] still looking for the way up to the good, wherever people can find it.”
That adage is particularly true on the disc’s stand-out tracks, including “It Don’t Matter Now,” in which Krauss admonishes: “Is that ‘sorry’ on your breath?/ Where were you, when I was sitting back here, missing you to death?/ It don’t matter now.”
Her wistful, personal phrasings are beautifully grounded by Union Station. Like Krauss, Barry Bales (acoustic bass, vocals), Ron Block (banjo, acoustic guitar) and Dan Tyminski (acoustic guitar, mandolin, vocals) are young, gifted and have played with the best talents that the roots-music world offers. Union Station’s newest, but most seasoned, member — world-class dobro player Jerry Douglas — boasts six Grammies of his own and has worked with such luminaries as James Taylor, Garth Brooks, Paul Simon, Bruce Hornsby, Trisha Yearwood, Leo Kottke, Lyle Lovett and Reba McEntire (plus hundreds of others; he’s one of Nashville’s top-tier session musicians).
Krauss has managed to protect her independence and evolve artistically, despite the pressure she must feel to carry the bluegrass torch. She first gained national recognition as a bluegrass fiddler while still an adolescent, and, in 1993, became the youngest member of the Grand Ole Opry and the first bluegrass musician inducted into its ranks in 29 years. With releases such as Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection (Rounder Records 1995), she followed her distinctive musical vision, adapting songs by The Beatles, Little Feat and Bad Company to bluegrass — all the while experimenting with pop, as well. That album went double platinum, attracting numerous offers from major labels, but Krauss remained loyal to Rounder Records — who had signed her at age 14 — and ensured her musical freedom.
If she’d chosen a bigger record label, as she told Jim Farber of the New York Daily News, “They would’ve put me with some producer who would’ve told me every move I should make. On an indie, I had the chance to screw everything up on my own, so I could then learn how to do just about everything right.”
Yes, Krauss is dead serious about playing music her way. She has often disdained playing large auditoriums, because, as she once said, “you can’t hear.”
And her graceful assimilation into Union Station is all-important to her. After a show in New England, the Boston Globe’s Scott Alarik noted: “Nearly everything about Krauss’ performance seemed aimed at deflecting her new pop-star status. No diva entrance for this one: She ambled on stage with her band around her, careful to stand in direct line with the front of the band. She met ovations and frequent shouts of ‘Alison’ by retreating even further into the band.”
Shortly after Krauss won the Grammy for 1995 Country Artist of the Year, she shared a typically self-deprecating anecdote revolving around escapades with her brother Viktor, a guitarist in Lyle Lovett’s band. “Well, Viktor got me an amplifier for my birthday, and Gary Paczosa, our engineer, got me a Danelectro guitar,” she told Jim Macnie of Rolling Stone, “so my brother and I sit around and play AC/DC songs in the living room with the amps turned up as loud as they will go. We walk outside with the guitars and play ‘Highway to Hell.’ It’s pretty fun, except Vik’s good and I suck.”
Perched atop the country and bluegrass charts before turning 30, Krauss has got to be kidding.