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Will success spoil Alison Krauss? The pressure is certainly building.
On July 3, 21-year-old Krauss became the first bluegrass player in 29 years to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. That night, the praise for this extraordinary fiddler and singer was flowing thick and sweet.
Vince Gill, renowned for his own singing ability, said of her voice, "It kicks my butt." Emmylou Harris called Krauss "a shining jewel in the Opry's crown." Dolly Parton, the singer whose voice Krauss' most resembles, called her "a country girl, pure of voice, pure of heart."
Finally, hillbilly rocker Marty Stuart, decked out in psychedelic cowboy leathers, cut closest to the bone by describing her as "the future of bluegrass music."
Because of her youth, her openness toward musical forms like pop and folk, and her ability to keep bluegrass relevant, Alison Krauss is widely perceived to be the one person with enough talent and verve to attract a new generation of fans to a music widely perceived as esoteric.
So far, Krauss' list of accomplishments is nothing short of astonishing. Barely legal to tip a cold one in most states, Krauss has already achieved everything most musicians spend their lives dreaming of.
Two of her four albums, 1990's I've Got That Old Feeling and last year's Every Time You Say Goodbye, have won Grammy Awards for "Best Bluegrass Recording." She performed at this year's nationally televised Country Music Association Awards show, and was featured in the recent network special Women of Country Music. She's been a repeat guest on Nashville Network programs like American Music Shop and Nashville Now, and the subject of profiles in USA Today, Time, People, Rolling Stone and the New York Times. What's most impressive about Krauss' rapid rise is that she's accomplished it in a notoriously male-dominated musical genre. It's no exaggeration to say that Krauss is the first woman since Mother Maybelle Carter to be treated as an equal by the boys' club of bluegrass music. On the telephone, however, Krauss is modest about her success. She says she feels "a little weird" that she was chosen when so many other, older bluegrass performers were ignored. It's clear from talking to her that Krauss was genuinely overwhelmed by her night at the Opry.
"I was incredibly nervous. I've never been that nervous," Krauss said last week, speaking from a friend's house near her childhood home in Champaign, Illinois. "It was awful. I was scared to death."
Although shy, down-home Krauss remains unspoiled by fame, she is astute enough to be building a very impressive career in and out of bluegrass. In the past year alone, she's sung on mainstream country albums by Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Mark Chesnutt, Lionel Cartwright, and Desert Rose Band. She also played fiddle on Nanci Griffith's most recent album, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and has even ventured into pop, singing back-up on ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald's latest recording, Blink of an Eye. Her high harmonies are some of the best in the business.
There have been signs on her own albums that Krauss is toying with the idea of mainstream success. On her most recent album, Every Time You Say Goodbye, for example, she dips into the decidedly nonbluegrass songbooks of Shawn Colvin and Karla Bonoff. Although the Rounder recording artist says she has no ambition other than playing bluegrass with her band of seven years, Union Station, she does admit she's had nibbles from bigger record labels. She's aware of the money a mainstream country singing career could bring her, and she's had discussions with MCA/Nashville honcho Tony Brown about such a switch. "No, I don't want to go solo or become just a singer," Krauss says, after squirming away from the question several times. "I've always stuck to my guns and done just what I wanted to do, which is bluegrass. I don't want to change anything. All you have is the music, and if you can't do it the way you want, then it's time to stop."
Picking up the fiddle at age 5, Krauss switched from classical music to bluegrass at age 8, and was soon entering every fiddle contest her parents could drive her to. By the age of 12, she had her own band. Her career took off in 1986. She shocked a Newport Folk Festival crowd, impressed Rounder enough that it offered her a contract, and signed her first recording deal at the ripe old age of 14.
Since then, Krauss has proved to be a dynamo both in the studio and onstage. Union Station has always followed the guitar-fiddle-bass instrumentation of traditional bluegrass ensembles. Krauss' music is the same haunting mix of Celtic fiddle laments and sprightly reels, jigs and hornpipes that Bill Monroe and the Carter Family turned into "bluegrass" 50 years ago. One of the things that makes Krauss such a powerful performer--and the chief reason many, including the Opry brass, think she will carry bluegrass into the next century--is her interest in keeping this traditional form vital and alive. Reminded of her bluegrass treatment of Shawn Colvin's folk-rock tune "I Don't Know Why" on Every Time You Say Goodbye, Krauss describes her music as "traditional with a progressive edge." "We try to keep it fresh," she says. "If it was just the same tired songs over and over, I'd already be going another way."
Krauss keeps her music out of the museum and on the club circuit by uncovering new bluegrass songwriters. Her albums, in fact, completely lack bluegrass standards. Instead of Bill Monroe tunes, her two Grammy Award-winning albums are filled with songs by unknowns like John Pennell and Sidney Cox, the latter who penned the title cut of I've Got That Old Feeling. Krauss grew up with Pennell in Illinois, and credits him as the person who turned her on to bluegrass. Cox, on the other hand, is a new acquaintance. He's a member of Louisiana's Cox Family, a Cajun-country-gospel group that Krauss has become friends with. She is currently in the process of recording a gospel album with the Cox clan that should be released by Rounder in January.
After that album and an upcoming "best of" compilation, Krauss will not be ready to make a new Union Station disc until late 1994. Great players have a way of attracting great talent, and Krauss' Union Station has always had chops to burn. And it has retained them, despite several personnel changes.
Last year, for example, longtime guitarist Tim Stafford quit. The group's schedule of 110 live shows per year had become too hard on his family. Without missing a beat, Krauss replaced him with John Bowman, who had previously played with the well-known Tennessee bluegrass band Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. In November, this new lineup will record together for the first time when it cuts three new songs for the aforementioned Krauss retrospective. And after that? Krauss laughs and says she doesn't know. "I've never had any goals. I just want to play and make better records.