Born on July 23, 1971, in Champaign, IL. Education: Studied voice with William Warfield at the University of Illinois, c. 1988. Addresses: Record company--Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Website--Alison Krauss and Union Station Official Website: http://www.alisonkrauss.com˙.
The first wave of national fame came for bluegrass fiddler Alison Krauss in 1990 when, at the age of 19, she walked away from the Grammy Awards with the trophy for Best Bluegrass Album. The win was a feat not only because of the artist's age, but because the album that earned her such recognition, I've Got That Old Feeling, was actually the third in Krauss's collection. Her first effort, Too Late to Cry, was released when the Champaign, Illinois, native was 16; she had signed a contract with Rounder Records--one of the most prestigious folk music labels in the industry--at the age of 14. And Krauss's accomplishments at such a young age and astounding virtuosity have consistently been matched by her faithfulness to bluegrass, the oldest, and perhaps most underrated, of traditional American musical forms. Krauss had now matured from a teen phenom into an accomplished musician and producer.
In 1988 Krauss was chosen by the National Council for the Traditional Arts as one of six fiddlers representative of American folk music styles--a nomination that placed her among some of the best-known and most experienced fiddlers in the country. According to Newsweek's Bill Christophersen, the style for which Krauss was elected was "western fiddling--a tradition that shuns blistering tempos for ornate improvisation. Western fiddlers pull a long bow, reeling off cascades of notes and turning hoedowns into showpieces."
"A Real Contest Queen"
Krauss first picked up the fiddle when she was five. In a remarkably short time, she was playing professionally, making a name for herself at music competitions across the country. Musician contributor Jim Macnie recounted how "[Krauss] became notorious for scarfing up top prize in a slew of Midwestern competitions" and quoted the fiddler as having admitted, "My parents and I drove all the time, sometimes even hit two or three a weekend. Yeah, I was a real contest queen." In 1984, 13-year-old Alison walked away with the top fiddling prize at the National Flatpicking Championship in Winfield, Kansas; the subsequent year brought her considerable attention at the Newport Folk Festival, in Rhode Island, one of the largest events on the folk music calendar. She was also busy picking up first prizes at state fiddling championships across the country, including Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Wisconsin.
Although the Grammy Award that she earned in 1990 marked a high point in Krauss's career, there were several other signs of her artistic coming of age in the early 1990s. She was a big winner with the International Bluegrass Music Association, which conferred upon her awards including Female Vocalist of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, and Album of the Year. And, in a move that echoed her early triumphs on the competition circuit, she became one of the chief draws at major folk music events across the country in 1991, including Telluride, in Colorado, and Winterhawk, in New York. 1991 also saw Krauss's first appearance at Jamboree USA, where she opened for bluegrass/country great Ricky Skaggs.
Expanded the Boundaries of Bluegrass
By this time, Krauss was becoming renowned for a unique quality in her musicianship--her ability to add a dimension, a styling, to the traditional bluegrass form that gave it a barrier-breaking power. As her reputation developed and broadened, she continued to maintain that special ability, as was reflected in Dan DeLuca's comments in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Krauss and [her band] Union Station respect bluegrass rules, but play with a crackling intensity that largely avoids the sameness that plagues the genre." David Wild's review of I've Got That Old Feeling for Rolling Stone similarly claimed, "Krauss makes traditional bluegrass seem utterly contemporary." Her expertise allowed Krauss to take bluegrass into the larger music mainstream, compelling listeners who were otherwise disinclined toward the sound to embrace its possibilities.
Ultimately, Krauss chose to downplay her role as a fiddle virtuoso to pursue a more modest commitment to the music itself. Scott Alarik, who interviewed Krauss for the Boston Globe in 1991, documented the fiddler's shift from phenomenon to bluegrass purist, explaining, "Just as she was gaining national prominence as a fiddle prodigy, she began eschewing hot licks in favor of a more restrained, melodic style--and to showcase her vocals. By 16, she was playing with the austere musicality of a master." Consequently, as some reviewers were applauding Krauss's ability to make musical masterpieces out of the humble raw materials of bluegrass, others began to praise the integrity of her budding professionalism. At a 1991 Philadelphia concert, the Inquirer's DeLuca was struck by her musical restraint. "Although her playing consistently dazzled the adoring crowd," the journalist recalled, "Krauss never once extended a solo to the point where it became more important than the song itself." In the same vein, Jim Bessman of Billboard noted that Krauss was "reluctant to do anything that might diverge from pure bluegrass conventions."
While many critics encouraged Krauss's dedication to bluegrass, producers from country music labels began trying to woo her away from the Rounder Records world of folk music with visions of commercial success. Public interest in Krauss was evident; as early as 1989, record reviewers were touting her potential as an international star. Goldmine writer Kit Kiefer declared, "Krauss has the talent and the looks to become the next truly great country music artist." Krauss's sweet soprano has, in fact, regularly prompted comparisons to country divas Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. For that matter, much of the country music industry's interest in Krauss has been based more on her status as a vocalist than as a fiddler. Although the musician herself may be primarily devoted to her skills as an instrumentalist, she has not neglected the development of her vocal talents; she began studying voice with William Warfield, an important name in the world of opera, at the University of Illinois in 1988.
Actively Courted by Major Country Labels
Edward Morris, writing in Billboard in 1991, captured the extent of the country music industry's courtship of Krauss, attesting, "At a recent Krauss concert at [Nashville's] Station Inn, the audience included [such industry heavyweights as] personal managers Ken Levitan and David Skepner and MCA Records executive VP and [Artists & Repertoire] chief Tony Brown." Affirmed Globe contributor Alarik, "A few major labels in Nashville thought she could do well in commercial country music." He quoted Krauss's response: "They wanted me to do records that were more geared toward country radio; you know, with electric guitars, drums, pedal steel. That just wasn't something I was interested in doing. One particular offer sounded really good. My parents were really excited, and our lawyer was excited. I finally decided I hadn't had my fill of playing bluegrass. I don't think I ever will."
Despite her decision to stay with Rounder, Krauss enjoyed considerable success with country music fans. In 1990, she made several key appearances in vital country formats, taping an episode of television's Hee Haw and becoming a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. She subsequently solidified her popularity with a performance at the Country Music Association's awards show.
The universality of attention being paid to Krauss's work has made it more difficult for the fiddler to control how her music is defined. She told Alarik, "[If Union Station] signs with a major label some day, it won't be commercial country music I'll be doing; not that it's something I don't like--we listen to it in the van all the time. The main issue is that we don't want to be told what to play and how to play it." Although the Illinois Entertainer's Bill Dalton labeled Krauss's 1989 album, Two Highways, as a country offering, it wasn't until the reviews for I've Got That Old Feeling began emerging that the battle over what Krauss really played--bluegrass or country--was explicitly declared. A music critic for the Village Voice asserted that the "queen of bluegrass has gone and made a country record." The City Paper, of Baltimore, was even bolder, stating, "This release is packed with fine bluegrass pickers, ... but for the most part the material is mainstream Nashville that's been shoehorned into bluegrass instrumentation."
That claim was seemingly bolstered by I've Got That Old Feeling's ten-week residency on Billboard's country album charts. The video for the title track--a rare venture for Rounder Records--enjoyed heavy rotation on cable's Country Music Television (CMT); it was subsequently named "video hit #1" on that channel. Krauss's second video release, for "Steel Rails," also became prominent on CMT. Though Krauss may prefer to view herself primarily as a bluegrass musician and has not courted the country mainstream, her appeal has clearly crossed over into that territory. In July of 1993, Krauss was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, the first bluegrass singer to be so honored in almost three decades.
Every Time You Say Goodbye, released in 1992, also contained a country music flair. The album showcases the tight vocal harmonies and musicianship of Union Station that have successfully supported Krauss's high, pure vocals and impressive fiddling. It won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album. Krauss released I Know Who Holds Tomorrow with the Cox Family on Rounder in 1994. The album won a Grammy Award for Best Southern Gospel, Country Gospel, or Bluegrass Gospel Album that year. Though not as spectacular a collection as Every Time You Say Goodbye, according to Thom Owens of All Music Guide, I Know Who Holds Tomorrow contains Krauss's typically impressive combination of "jaw-dropping fiddling and breathtaking singing."
Surprise Crossover Success
Though Krauss's previous award-winning records had created new excitement for bluegrass and earned her great acclaim, it was the surprise crossover success of the compilation Now That I've Found You: A Collection that launched Krauss into the upper stratum of mainstream popularity. The album, comprised of nine songs from Krauss's catalog of recorded music from 1987 to 1994 as well as three previously unreleased songs and the Grammy Award-nominated "When You Say Nothing at All" from Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album, charted at number two on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart and number 13 on the Top 200 pop chart. Likely responsible for the album's pop appeal were covers of the Foundations' 1967 pop song "Baby, Now That I've Found You," Bad Company's "Oh, Atlanta," and the Beatles' "I Will."
Krauss and Union Station released So Long, So Wrong in 1997, the first album of new material by the group since Every Time You Say Goodbye in 1992. Called "devilishly pleasing" by Alana Nash in Entertainment Weekly, the album returned to a traditional bluegrass focus. "It's much more challenging to make something new-sounding with the same five instruments and less options," Krauss told Jim Bessman in Billboard, "and the band only gets tighter the longer we play together.... I guess we're more mature, which sounds so stupid, but it's true...."
Forget About It, released in 1999, was another of Krauss's "solo" records. "What happens with my 'solo' records is that the band gets a chance to play with other musicians, and they like doing that," Krauss told Timothy White in Billboard. Krauss lends a great deal of thought to the mood of the music she produces, and told White that Forget About It had regret as its theme. "I say the ... record has a sadness to it, but I like it, 'cause I think it's the positive kind, still looking for the way up to the good, wherever people can find it."
The year 2001 saw the remarkable multiplatinum success of the soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Appearing on the soundtrack was an esteemed collection of American country, folk, and bluegrass musicians, including Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, John Hartford, the Fairfield Four, Gillian Welch, the Cox Family, the Stanley Brothers, Norman Blake, and the Whites. Mario Tarradell of the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service called Krauss's version of "Down to the River to Pray" "uplifting and breathtaking." Another notable track was "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby," which was sung a cappella by Krauss, Harris, and Welch. "[T]he song has a bluesy edge that only punctuates the sadness of the lyrics," Tarradell commented.
Krauss and Union Station released New Favorite in 2001, an album that created a "progressive slant to Union Station's traditional bluegrass feel," according to Zac Johnson of All Music Guide. The group released the two-disc Live set recorded at the Palace Theater in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2002. Krauss has also become a successful producer, working with award-winning bluegrass group Nickel Creek and the Cox Family.
by Ondine E. Le Blanc
Alison Krauss's Career
Began playing fiddle, c. 1976; became regular on bluegrass competition circuit, 1980s; signed with Rounder Records, c. 1985; released Too Late to Cry, 1987, and I've Got That Old Feeling,1990; appeared at Telluride, Winterhawken, and Jamboree U.S.A. folk festivals, 1991; released original work and compilations on Rounder including Every Time You Say Goodbye, 1992; I Know Who Holds Tomorrow, 1994; Now That I've Found You: A Collection, 1995; So Long, So Wrong, 1997; Forget About It, 1999; and New Favorite,2001; contributed to the highly successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? film soundtrack, 2001; released two-disc Live set, 2002.
Alison Krauss's Awards
Country Music Association, Female Vocalist of the Year, Horizon Award, Single of the Year, Vocal Event of the Year, 1995, Album of the Year, 2001; Grammy Awards, Best Bluegrass Album, 1990, Best Bluegrass Album, 1992, Best Southern Gospel, Country Gospel, or Bluegrass Gospel Album, 1994, Best Female Country Vocal Performance, 1995, Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, 1996, Best Bluegrass Album, Best Country Instrumental Performance, Best Country Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocal, 1997, Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, 1998, Best Bluegrass Album, Best Country Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocal, Album of the Year, 2001; International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, Female Vocalist of the Year, 1990, Female Vocalist of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, Album of the Year, 1991, Female Vocalist of the Year, Best Bluegrass Album, 1993, Female Vocalist of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, 1995, Song of the Year, 1997; other awards: induction, Grand Ole Opry, 1993; Gospel Music Association Dove Award, Bluegrass Recorded Song of the Year, 1998.
- Selected discography
- Too Late to Cry , Rounder, 1987.
- (With Union Station) Two Highways , Rounder, 1989.
- I've Got That Old Feeling , Rounder, 1990.
- (With Union Station) Every Time You Say Goodbye , Rounder, 1992.
- (With the Cox Family)I Know Who Holds Tomorrow , Rounder, 1994.
- (Contributor) Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album , BNA, 1994.
- Now That I've Found You: A Collection , Rounder, 1995.
- (Contributor) Twister (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1996.
- (Contributor) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1997.
- (With Union Station) So Long, So Wrong , Rounder, 1997.
- (Contributor) The Prince of Egypt: Nashville (soundtrack), DreamWorks, 1998.
- (Contributor) Buffy The Vampire Slayer (soundtrack), TVT, 1999.
- Forget About It , Rounder, 1999.
- (Contributor) Happy, Texas (soundtrack), Arista, 1999.
- (Contributor) O Brother, Where Art Thou? (soundtrack), Mercury, 2000.
- (With Union Station) New Favorite , Rounder, 2001.
- (Contributor) Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (soundtrack), DMZ/Columbia, 2002.
- (With Union Station) Live , Rounder, 2002.
February 8, 2004: Krauss won three Grammy Awards, including best bluegrass album, for Live, best country instrumental performance, for "Cluck Old Hen," and best country collaboration with vocals, for "How's the World Treating You," with James Taylor. With these wins, she became the most honored female musician in Grammy history, with 17 awards. Source: 46th Grammy Awards, grammys.com/awards/grammy/46winners.aspx, February 8, 2004.
November 9, 2004: Krauss shared two Country Music Association Awards with Brad Paisley, including Music Video of the Year and Musical Event of the Year, for Whiskey Lullaby. Source: 38th Annual CMA Awards, www.cmaawards.com, November 9, 2004.
February 8, 2006: Krauss and Union Station won three Grammy Awards, including best country album for Lonely Runs Both Ways, best country vocal performance by a duo or group with vocal for "Restless," and best country instrumental performance for "Unionhouse Branch." Source: Grammy.com, http://grammy.com/GRAMMY_Awards/Annual_Show/48_nominees.aspx, February 9, 2006.
- Billboard, October 27, 1990; November 10, 1990; July 17, 1993; May 20, 1995, p. 8; November 4, 1995, p. 55; February 22, 1997, p. 26; June 5, 1999, p. 3; August 21, 1999, p. 29; August 18, 2001, p. 14; November 2, 2002, p. 11.
- Boston Globe, January 11, 1991.
- City Paper (Baltimore), January 11, 1990.
- Down Beat, October 1989.
- Entertainment Weekly, February 10, 1995, p. 66; March 28, 1997, p. 66.
- Goldmine, November 3, 1989.
- Illinois Entertainer (Des Plaines), November 1989.
- Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 28, 2001, p. K2508; December 12, 2001, p. K5.
- Musician, February 1991.
- Newsweek, October 1, 1990.
- Philadelphia Inquirer, March 26, 1991.
- Rolling Stone, November 15, 1990.
- Village Voice, November 20, 1990.
- "Alison Krauss," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 28, 2003).
- Alison Krauss and Union Station Official Website, http://www.alisonkrauss.com (February 27, 2003).
- Rounder Records, http://www.rounder.com (February 27, 2003).