If you're determined to solve the mystery of how a great musician arrives at a particular approach — paring down extraneous matter into the essentials of her art — you could do far worse than to consider the career of Alison Krauss. Nearly a quarter-century after she became famous as a progressive bluegrass musician who makes connections among musical styles as easily as she attracts fans of all ages and persuasions, Krauss stands as an emblem of integrity and commitment in an increasingly fragmented world. She is a major artist who seems to operate in a zone of pure music — a realm of emotional logic in which conservative and experimental impulses are perfectly blended.
Krauss is getting ready to go back on the road with her longtime band, Union Station, in support of last year's superb full-length release Paper Airplane, and they are also set to play a benefit for Nashville's Linden Waldorf School that will feature a set of Krauss' tunes and an opportunity for fans to see a great bluegrass band play an old-fashioned dance, complete with a caller who is scheduled to come in from North Carolina. Krauss is an artist who makes thoughtful music, but she sounds pleased to work for the dancers.
"It is so much fun," Krauss says. "We played [the Linden Waldorf benefit] last year, and my face hurt from smiling. When I was a kid, I'd play square dances and stuff. For this one, we play the show, and provide the music for the dance."
Paper Airplane stands as a first-rate introduction to Krauss' approach, with songs that burn slowly from deep inside — the textures of Krauss' band are as beguiling as the compositions themselves. Krauss has always been a genius at song selection, with memorable covers of Bad Company and The Foundations to her credit. Airplane contains a version of Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day," which may be the finest cover Krauss and Union Station have yet recorded.
"When I first heard that song, I was blown away by it," Krauss says. "I heard Linda Thompson singing it, and I thought, 'There's no way I could do that.' A couple of years went by, and yet I didn't want to do it, because of how respected it's been. But there comes a point when it's time for you to do it, and it becomes what's true."
Krauss finds her own truth in Thompson's song, and her vocal compares well with Linda Thompson's on Richard and Linda Thompson's 1975 full-length Pour Down Like Silver. Krauss' hushed singing combines with an arrangement that seems to slightly dim through the verses. Like all of Krauss' work, the rest of Paper Airplane amounts to a bluegrass-ized modernization of the singer-songwriter aesthetic. Yet Krauss says she never intended to make bluegrass a syncretic art.
"It's definitely not anything we set out to do," Krauss says. "It's just kinda how you play and sing, and you play what moves you, and you don't have any other intent behind it than to tell the truth. I want to sing things that I have to sing, and that's really the driving force behind what material we choose to do and our approach to it."
Born in 1971 in Decatur, Ill., Krauss first gained prominence as a fiddle prodigy, and met the future members of Union Station at bluegrass festivals in the Midwest. Signed to Rounder Records, she released her first full-length in 1987. Along the way, she has worked with Louisiana bluegrass group The Cox Family and produced country singer Alan Jackson's 2006 full-length Like Red on a Rose — one of Jackson's more interesting works.
"For me, when [Jackson] brought it up, he was like, 'I'd like to make a bluegrass record,' " Krauss remembers. "I thought, 'Boy,' and there was a particular song that came to mind as I sat there, and that was 'Like Red on a Rose.' That was about a calmness — a man looking back at his life and being able to talk about how he does things differently now."
Like Red on a Rose demonstrates Krauss' savvy as a producer, while such '90s tracks as "Baby, Now That I've Found You" and her take on The Beatles' "I Will" make it clear that she possesses a sharp ear for pop music. Krauss' 1995 full-length Now That I've Found You: A Collection remains an essential part of any popular music fan's collection.
Krauss seems modest but intense as she talks about her ongoing musical education. "It's been a very enjoyable life, yeah, getting to do this," she says. "I know, once I sang more, my playing got better as far as choosing different things that would be desirable to play. The choices got smaller, because you overplay and you over-sing as a young person."
The much-honored musician — she has 27 Grammy Awards — also worked with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant on the 2007 full-length Raising Sand, which is, of course, an Americana landmark. This year, Krauss and Union Station played the theme from The Simpsons on the animated show's 500th episode — an experience she remembers with relish.
"We were kinda blown away to be asked to do it," says Krauss. "The really interesting part was to play a funny song. You know, you're always doing everything so seriously all the time, and to be learning that, and have the score to look at, it was a really different musical experience — where the goal is to be laughing."
Much like Richard Thompson, Krauss transcends categories, and combines a sense of humor with the deepest melancholy. And like a jazz player, Krauss knows how to seize the moment. Yet she remains a product of a deeply rooted culture. "It's such a beautiful, simple way of life, the message that is in bluegrass," she says. "There's no place better than home. It's a beautiful way of life that's depicted in those songs."
Nice piece, Jim.
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