Alison Krauss: Champaign resident, 19, hopes for first Grammy
Alison Krauss develops from prodigy to superstar in 1991 to 2000. These five profiles follow her across that decade.

Bruce Hornsby’s victory in the Grammy Awards’ bluegrass category last year ruffled feathers among the genre’s few but faithful fans. Hornsby’s lone stab at bluegrass, a sped-up version of his pop hit “The Valley Road,” attracted enough voters’ attention to leave the well-established competition in the dust.

A year later, Champaign’s Alison Krauss, fiddler extraordinaire and tender vocalist, returns to the Grammy competition Wednesday, and there’s no pop-guy-turned-bluegrass-hero to spoil the party.

The 19-year-old Krauss’ second nomination in the bluegrass category is for her third album, “I’ve Got That Old Feeling,” on Rounder Records. It’s a beautifully delicate collection, highlighting broken love, which soothes the listener without lulling anyone to sleep. This is bluegrass for anyone who doesn’t like bluegrass.

Still, the album’s country/folk slant – there’s banjo on just three cuts – worries  Krauss that it may hurt her chances at garnering a Grammy.

“I’m not counting on (winning) by any means,” Krauss said last week, speaking from a Nashville studio. “What I feel weird about is that this album is the least bluegrass of all the records we’ve done. If I did win, I guess I’d feel a little like Bruce Hornsby.”

Locally, Krauss may be central Illinois’ best-kept musical secret. Not one copy of “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” was available at four prominent Springfield record stores recently. But the national press remains Krauss’s biggest booster.

Stories on Krauss have appeared in recent issues of Rolling Stone (“Krauss makes traditional bluegrass seem utterly contemporary — a rare achievement at any age”); Newsweek (she’s “one of the most unaffectedly adept country singers on the circuit”); and Musician (Krauss and her ensemble, Union Station, “earn praise at every turn – sometimes for their nonchalant precision, sometimes for the leader’s rich, immediately identifiable soprano”). In August 1986, People magazine devoted an entire page to the youthful fiddling prodigy, including a picture of her standing in a cornfield.

Unfortunately, media kudos don’t automatically translate into jumbo record sales. Still, “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” has sold more than 20,000 copies, a remarkable showing for a bluegrass LP. Despite the tug of possible widespread success in the country market, Krauss won’t shift gears.

“The farthest I’ll ever stray from (bluegrass) is this album,” she said.

And what about her penchant to select sorrowful material? “The sadder, the better,” Krauss said, “then when you get a happy one, it really makes you feel good.”

In between working on her fourth album, Krauss continues to perform live concerts, especially in the southeast. On March 3, she’ll play in Monticello (between Champaign and Decatur). It’s been nine years since her last Springfield appearance, which occurred at an Illinois State Fair fiddling contest. She was 10.

A Grammy victory on her resume, though, could certainly entice promoters. Heading to New York with a Rounder publicist, she’ll find out the results in a ceremony before the televised portion.

“The bluegrass category won’t be a big, fancy televised thing,” Krauss said. “But they’ll show the winner in a snippet, so watch for it.”

(Krauss won her first Grammy that month. She proceeded to win 27 Grammy Awards, the most by any performing act, from her 42 nominations.)

 

November 19, 1993

Krauss sprouting bluegrass success

Although she’s a recent Grand Ole Opry inductee and two-time Grammy Award winner, Alison Krauss may be the biggest country star no one’s heard of.

But Krauss – whose vocals recall a young Dolly Parton – doesn’t mind. She happily covets her status among the hierarchy of bluegrass performers, and if country radio isn’t interested in her, well, forget ’em.

“We’ve always done country-flavored stuff,” says Krauss, 22, “but I won’t alter my music to get popularity in another area.”

A stellar fiddle player, Krauss was the first bluegrass performer in 29 years to join the Grand Ole Opry. And numerous country artists – from Parton to Vince Gill to Alan Jackson – have asked her to perform, vocally and instrumentally, on their albums.

In fact, Jackson’s first single and video, “The Angels Cried,” from his Christmas album prominently features Krauss.

Still, Krauss & Union Station have carved a respectable career by themselves. The group’s 1992 album, “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” earned a Grammy in the bluegrass category, repeating Krauss’ victory in 1991 for her solo release, “I’ve Got That Old Feeling.”

Combined, the albums display the range of Krauss’ talent and why it’s unfair to pigeonhole her as a bluegrass artist. Krauss, who performs in Madison tonight, acknowledges that her choice of songs often includes a large number of love-gone-bad tunes.

“It always seems to come around back to that,” she says. “I’m not looking for those particular kinds of songs, but it seems like those are the ones that are most believable. The people we get songs from often write when things aren’t going well, I guess.”

Next spring, Krauss will release a compilation of her four albums on Rounder Records, as well as three new songs.

She says facing an audience isn’t getting any easier, despite her background as a fiddle prodigy and frequent concerts in recent years.

“It’s tougher now,” Krauss says. “The more you learn, the more you know that you don’t know.”

Krauss, who grew up near the University of Illinois in Champaign, lives in a Nashville suburb. On the day of this interview, she received photos from a recording session with Dolly Parton last spring. It remains Krauss’ fondest memory.

The pair stood two feet apart recording a song for one of Parton’s albums. After Parton performed, Krauss sang poorly.

“(Parton) had to leave because I was so intimidated,” Krauss says. “I mean, she’s the queen. Forget her fame – she has my favorite voice.”

Asked how she keeps her ego in check amid a storm of kudos from Rolling Stone, Newsweek and peers (Vince Gill says, “She kicks my butt”), Krauss says it’s easy.

“I just remember that there’s always someone better than me who’s not even recognized yet,” she says.

After saying her career goal is to keep “doing what I’m doing,” Krauss admits with a laugh to one other aspiration:

“I’d love to sing with Dolly Parton again.”

 

August 26, 1996

Concert review: Krauss makes it look easy

On Saturday at the Madison Civic Center, Alison Krauss sang with the voice of an angel, played fiddle with heartbreaking tenderness and joked around a lot.

She did each effortlessly, shifting between balladeer and musician and humorist as if the combination came to her as easily as brushing her teeth.

There’s seemingly no boundary to her talents. She turned only 25 last month, yet Saturday’s wonderful show raised the bar a few inches on what sets the standard for bluegrass/folk/country concerts.

Joined by her stellar four-man acoustic group, Union Station, Krauss glided across musical genres until you felt they created their own form – country and eastern, perhaps, or maybe public radio punk.

Though the song lyrics are often depressing, Krauss manages to wrap herself so completely in the tunes that there’s a soothing quality to each number.

Krauss and Union Station also kept the show as intimate as possible. They remained stationary, standing virtually shoulder to shoulder on a flowered rug. Behind them were walls of an old-fashioned living room.

Yet this wasn’t music to play in the background while eating brunch — and it carried considerably more punch than those Windham Hill tours that stop at the Civic Center each year.

Union Station members – using mandolin, acoustic guitar, standup bass and banjo – provide perfect complement to Krauss. The group’s vocal harmonies allow an easy transition into gospel songs.

Krauss is also happy to share between-song banter with her bandmates, but the comments veered off track, proving the perils of impromptu chit chat.

Still, Krauss remained a relaxed and bubbly entertainer with very little ego. Introducing their song from the “Twister” soundtrack, she described the film as “that big fat tornado movie.”

And even though the group’s last album sold an astounding 2 million copies, she never mentioned that success. (Union Station’s Adam Steffey even mocked the band’s souvenirs.)

However, the 1,300 or so fans will long remember Krauss’ performance. Saturday’s set contained so many memorable moments — “Steel Rails,” “Everytime You Say Goodbye,” “Sleep On” and “Oh, Atlanta.”

Even her cover choices by artists as diverse as Shawn Colvin, Bad Company and Shenandoah were interpreted with stunning flair.

Krauss has so much talent to burn that the rest of her career is going to be one fascinating ride.

 

July 24, 1997

Alison Krauss: No pigeonholes

For one night 22 months ago, Alison Krauss reigned as country music’s queen. She’s still laughing about it.

Just 24 years old at the time, Krauss had spent more than a decade toiling in obscurity as a bluegrass artist. She recorded for an independent label, Rounder, that had never gotten airplay on country radio stations.

And, gulp, she wasn’t a country artist.

But her hit single of Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing at All” prompted an avalanche of good fortune. She sold more than 2 million copies of “Collection,” a career retrospective, and won four major Country Music Association awards, bumping off Reba and Wynonna.

“All I could think during that night was, `This is a mistake!’ ” Krauss says with a giggle.

Speaking before a show in Philadelphia, Krauss recalls how in 1995 the doors to Nashville opened wider than Shania Twain’s smile.

She never bit.

“It had no effect on us,” she says. “We had already started working on this new record (`So Long So Wrong’). We weren’t going to let one night change what we’ve been doing for 10 years. It’s more important that we like our records because we have to live with it.”

As a result, Krauss and Co. continued to make “So Long So Wrong,” which was released last spring and brings them to the Civic Center Saturday for their second show in Madison in a year.

“So Long So Wrong” is part bluegrass, part folk and part adult contemporary pop. It’s tough to pigeonhole the music, and that pleases Krauss.

“It’s a compliment when people don’t know what to call you, because it must mean you’re doing something new.”

Maintaining her musical independence cost her commercially — country radio has avoided “So Long So Wrong” — but there are plenty of dividends for her fans on the album.

Krauss’ concerts also remain precious, intimate affairs. Her near-whisper vocals create an angelic quality to her singing. Union Station also doesn’t take a back seat. The four-man band offers lead vocals and provides sweet acoustic instrumentals.

Saturday’s show will have a similar stage – “We still play on top of a rug,” Krauss says – to last August’s Madison show. She’ll also do plenty of spontaneous banter with her band.

And for a set list? She says it’ll feature most of the new album, dig deep into her six previous releases and include a couple surprise covers.

“When you only have one hit, it’s actually not easy to pick what you play,” she says. “It’s not like, `We have to do all of our 14 hits.’ ”

Krauss has been a professional musician since her pre-teen years, but she says she didn’t miss out on a “normal” teen life by touring on weekends.

“I had a great time,” she says. “It was wonderful to have something to look forward to when I was in school. I didn’t go to football games, I didn’t experiment with alcohol because I had something really fun to do. I was never bored.”

Her musical tastes now vary so much that music writers are surprised when she says that her tastes range from AC/DC to Anne Murray.

“I like anything done well. I grew up with a really non-biased opinion on music. My parents exposed me to everything under the sun when it came to music.”

“I’m never wrapped up in what’s cool. But when you play music that’s non-commercial, you’re not supposed to like things that are commercial.”

So you really can sing along to AC/DC’s “Back in Black”? “Oh, totally,” Krauss says, “but I’m more into the Bon Scott days.”

 

November 16, 2000

Alison Krauss offers ‘piles of styles’

Bluegrass, folk, country or soft rock. Angel-voiced Alison Krauss hates to pigeonhole her music to one genre, although she dips her toe into each musical pool.

Her acclaimed, year-old album, “Forget About It,” could fit in any number of record store category bins.

“We’ve got a pile of styles,” explains Krauss, during a phone interview from her Nashville-area home.

“We had that song (`When You Say Nothing At All’) that did well on country radio a few years ago, but I wouldn’t categorize it as country. And I don’t think of it as folk.”

No one could label the album as bluegrass.

“I don’t think so, either,” she says, then offers her own description.

“We are singers,” she adds with a laugh, “of sad, beautiful songs.”

Perfect.

Krauss will bring those many fragile gems, with an occasional bluegrass flurry, to the Barrymore Theatre on Friday.

Her career spans nearly two decades, beginning with her work as a fiddle prodigy. At age 17, she performed in Madison as part of the “Masters of Folk Violin” tour. She remembers it fondly.

Krauss, 29, says she keeps few souvenirs from her career — her 10 Grammys, for instance, are scattered among her parents’ homes and her management’s office — but her Tennessee home includes a large photo from that tour.

“Some of the best times I’ve had,” she recalls.

Krauss, of course, was heading toward bigger fame than her fiddling peers. It culminated in 1995 when her collection of songs, “Now That I’ve Found You,” dating back to 1989, sold more than 2 million albums on an independent label.

She then stunned the Nashville music industry that year, winning four Country Music Awards.

“That was sort of surreal,” Krauss says.

As usual, though, Krauss and her bandmates kept their feet planted. Instead of ditching their small label and trying to re-create their country hit, they continued to progress on their own terms.

The results that followed meant two albums, including “Forget About It,” sold a respectable but not stellar 500,000 copies each while solidifying the group’s fan base.

Friday’s show, which has no opening act, will feature Jerry Douglas performing with Krauss and Union Station. Krauss calls Douglas “the Eric Clapton of dobro.”

Krauss admits it’s “a drag” that her group doesn’t receive much radio airplay, but she is quick to insist she has no complaints.

That partial contradiction also reaches into her own musical tastes. In recent years, she has recorded with acts as diverse as Kenny Rogers and Phish. She is also an unabashed rock fan, favoring loud ’70s and ’80s rockers, such as Def Leppard and Bad Company.

“I sang `Ready for Love’ onstage with Bad Company,” she says excitedly. “It was like living out my fantasy.”

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