Grammy Winner Fiddles a Fast One
Bluegrass musician Alison Krauss holds on to a down-home demeanor despite her popularity
THE fancy fiddle and dulcet voice of Alison Krauss are winning the 19-year-old new fans and heaps of praise. Her peers awarded her a Grammy for the Best Bluegrass Recording of 1990, with her recent album, "I've Got That Old Feeling." Critics rave about her versatile style - how she can move easily from soft ballads to Western swing to honest-to-goodness hoe-down. They say her voice sounds like the early days of Dolly Parton or Emmylou Harris.
Those who come to her show for the first time are struck by her unaffected, honest style. The way she rolls her eyes when someone mentions her Grammy. Or the way she stands - in ripped blue-jeans and lizard boots - clutching her fiddle as she sings a cappella about Jesus. The sassy soprano is breaking bluegrass bounds: She is the first woman to receive a Grammy in bluegrass. She is the first to make a bluegrass music video, which soared to the top on Nashville-based Country Music TV and has remained the re for several months. Although if most bluegrass stars "go country" after the promise of commercial success and big record contracts, Krauss says she'll stick to the simple sounds of bluegrass. Bluegrass is rapid-paced acoustic music made by five instruments: the fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and stand-up bass; sometimes a dobro. Purists say the real thing does not include piano, drums, or electric anything.
Sometimes Krauss even shuns microphones and amplifiers in her concerts, as she did during a recent double-show here in Boston where Krauss and her band, Union Station, set feet a-tappin' and heads a-bobbin' for several hours. Other band members include: Alison Brown on banjo (a Harvard graduate who left Wall Street to make music); Tim Stafford on guitar and vocals; Adam Steffey on mandolin; and Barry Bales on bass.
At one point, Krauss had the sound crew turn off the amplifiers so the band could do a couple of "straight ahead bluegrass" songs. The crowd liked this set so much that during the encore several people shouted "kill the sound system!" - unusual in today's music scene of mega-watts and hyper-noise.
Over lunch in Boston, sandwiched between radio interviews and the night's performances, Krauss picked through French fries and talked - in her light Midwestern twang - about her career. A native of Champaign, Ill., Krauss started classical violin lessons when she was five, switched to "contest-style fiddlin" when she was eight, and won the state fair competition when she was 10. (The fiddle and the violin are the same instrument by different names.) She learned fast fiddling by listening to records, sh e says; she liked bluegrass better than classical because she had no teacher and there was a guitarist to play along with. She signed with Rounder Records when she was 14; the Grammy-winning album is her third.
WHAT Krauss doesn't like about bluegrass is its near invisibility. "We get people coming to the show all the time that say, 'I've never heard bluegrass before, but I love it.' People haven't had the opportunity to hear it," she says. (The No. 1 bluegrass band in Washington D. C. calls itself the "Seldom Scene.") Clubs don't book bluegrass acts, radio stations don't play the songs, and big record companies seldom sign bluegrass contracts, says Krauss. Instead, the best bluegrass acts get offers to make c ountry records - which is good for country, but leaves an empty patch in bluegrass.
"Some of the most respected country musicians come out of bluegrass. I don't think [bluegrass] is a lesser music at all. When Ricky Skaggs came on the [country] scene, he was a breath of fresh air," Krauss says. "He made a huge impact on country music. He brought the acoustic instruments back in. I just think if a major label took a chance on a bluegrass act, it could get played on commerical radio."
Krauss says she's glad Rounder Records took a chance with her act by making a video. Bluegrass lyrics are about broken hearts. "The sadder the better," smiles Krauss, who doesn't write her own songs yet. (She likes John Pennell, Nelson Mandrell, and Sidney Cox.)
"Bluegrass is either sad songs about heartbreak or songs about mom and dad, songs about bein' in prison, or songs about their house," says Krauss. "I love the sad songs the best," she says.
How can a 19-year-old sing about heartbreak? Broken hearts and broken hopes are pretty much the same, she says. "I think people can relate to those [songs] because everybody's felt bad and disappointed before." More important, says Krauss, is the tune. "They may be sad songs, but they're very happy melodies." Krauss doesn't mind people likening her voice to Dolly Parton's. At the mention, Krauss blushes and smiles. "I sang on her new album. Course I didn't get to meet her or anything." Ms. Parton had re corded her part earlier, but Krauss said she asked the engineers to let her listen to it alone. "It was wild," she says, rolling her star-struck eyes.
BUT she is not struck with her own stardom. She says her family keeps her Grammy on the living room coffee table. "They pull it out and show it to people, like to the UPS man and stuff like that. They think it's cool."
Krauss and her band are touring, awaiting the summer release of their next album. Krauss and banjo player Brown are preparing for a recording of an all-woman bluegrass band. Her dream is simple: "I hope I can make a living at doing this. It's an awfully good time."
Alison Krauss and Union Station will be performing in these cities: Apr. 26 Black Mt., N.C.; Apr. 27 Carrboro, N.C.; May 4 Wheeling, W.V.; May 5 Dayton, Ohio; May 10 Ann Arbor, Mich.; May 11 Cincinnati; May 12 Champaign, Ill.; May 18 New York; May 25 Beaver, Pa.