CMT.com is taking advantage of its relationship with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to provide an excerpt from the latest issue of the Journal of Country Music. Veteran journalist Jim Bessman, who has followed her career since the beginning, provides the overview in the JCM feature, “Alison Krauss: Mountain Mama.”
Krauss understandably has been way too busy, and, besides, she remains an unaffectedly shy, if naturally friendly, superstar who doesn’t particularly like doing interviews — not to mention that her interviews with me generally disintegrate into total silliness after she apologizes for taking so long to get back to me.
“I have a huge zit on my chin and I’m trying to fry it with zit cream under a Winnie-the-Pooh Band-Aid,” she shrieks, knowing it’s exactly what I want to hear. It means that she hasn’t really changed at all, not since she beat a tightly formatted, unresponsive country music radio climate in bringing bluegrass music to the forefront — while making herself the brightest of country music luminaries and virtually the most sought-after guest vocalist in music, extending even into pop and rock.
Then again, she hasn’t really changed at all, at least not that I can see, since she was a teenager. The night after her historic and astonishing near-sweep of the major CMA awards of 1995 (female vocalist of the year; Horizon Award; single of the year for “When You Say Nothing at All” with Union Station; and vocal event of the year for “Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart” with Shenandoah), where was her surprise birthday party celebrated? Why, at a local roller rink, where the star of all stars broke away from the scores of adoring friends to share a private skate with her brother Vik.
But I should qualify: Alison hasn’t changed at all, really, in terms of her ever-humble, self-effacing demeanor. But if you’ve seen her in concert recently, or especially in the videos of “The Lucky One” and “Let Me Touch You for Awhile” from New Favorite, you’ve seen a mature Alison Krauss who can only be described as, well, glamorous.
“It’s not really me,” she hastily objects, “but it sure is fun to pretend that it is. It’s really the ultimate form of playing dress-up, because not only are you dressing like you never dress, but you also have your hair done, and it’s on film, and they smooth out your zits for you, and it’s a good time. But it doesn’t mean you don’t look stupid. I ran into someone at the Franklin Jazz Festival who said, ‘Hey, I haven’t seen you in awhile. You sure look different than you do in your videos.’ It’s a little disappointing for people.”
If that’s the case, it’s likely the only disappointment ever registered directly at Krauss — though not regarding her. Bluegrass authority Peter Kuykendall, the longtime editor of Bluegrass Unlimited, recalls that magic night of her transcendent CMA triumph.
“It broke my heart when we were coming back afterwards and happened to be listening to the country stations, and they were commenting that she couldn’t play the fiddle, and they’d put Charlie Daniels up against her any day of the week,” says Kuykendall. “It was all we could do not to drive off the road! But that’s a lot of the perception out there in the industry. Some people just don’t realize the depth of her talent beyond her unique voice.”
Many others, however, do. “She may not play hardcore bluegrass à la the Soggy Bottom Boys, but she covers a lot of bases and has achieved a lot more visibility than anybody else in the genre,” notes Kuykendall. Truly, Krauss does cover a lot of bases, inside her own music and that of many, many others. Besides 10 albums of her own (with and without Union Station), her music has appeared in such film soundtracks as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Twister, not to mention O Brother, Where Art Thou? She’s also graced the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series album soundtrack, as well as special compilations like Country Disney: The Best of Country Sing the Best of Disney.
Her many side projects, meanwhile, confirm Krauss’s paramount stature among her peers. She has performed or recorded with an extraordinary range of artists, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the rock group Phish, Patti Page , Linda Ronstadt , Natalie MacMasters and Michael Johnson , not to mention the legion of country admirers like Vince Gill , Dolly Parton , Alan Jackson and Ricky Skaggs . As a producer, she’s responsible for three Cox Family albums, the self-titled 2000 debut disc by young bluegrass sensations Nickel Creek and their 2002 follow-up, This Side.
“She created the template for us to follow,” says Nickel Creek guitarist Sean Watkins. “We definitely sound different from her, but she set a standard for keeping an open mindset for things — and she does that for lots of people in country music and pop. People realize that there’s a lot of musical terrain yet to be discovered because of her, and it’s very inspiring.”