Country Music Wunderkind Alison Krauss
Back in 1975 Boston Red Sox center fielder Fred Lynn won both American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, becoming the first, and last, player in history to do so. This year, 24-year-old singer/fiddler Alison Krauss stunned the Country Music Association by pulling off an equivalent feat: winning both the Horizon Award, for biggest career advancement, and Best Female Vocalist award. In addition, her "When You Say Nothing At All" was named Single of the Year, and she shared the vocal event of the year award with Shenandoah for their collaboration "Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart." Accepting her first award Krauss offered this measured, thought-out response: "Wow! You people! I'll never be able to keep my dinner down." After winning the fourth, she blurted, "What in the world's going on here folks? You guys! I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm going to have to get a flask or something." What is going on here? How did a 24-year-old from Champaign, Illinois become the hottest thing in Nashville? How did a bluegrass fiddler who records for a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based independent label specializing in roots music end up with a platinum record? She doesn't conform to Nashville's formula for hit records by using the pool of approved studio musicians. She refuses to abandon her five-piece band, Union Station, claiming that they are as important to her sound as she is. Krauss breaks all the rules of bluegrass music, the ones that say bluegrass should be played by men from Appalachia in matching suits who sing traditional ballads. And here's Alison, whose psychologist father and illustrator mother had her and her older brother enrolled in every activity available in their college town including beginning her on classical violin at age five. After discovering bluegrass at age 12, this young girl from a Yankee college town was winning fiddle contests and throwing in songs by people like the Beatles and Bad Company. She's a virtuoso fiddler, capable of playing as hot a version of "Orange Blossom Special" as anybody, but she claims to work hard to see how many notes she can leave out. Through her playing she become the hottest most sought-after act on the bluegrass festival circuit. Now she's doing the same thing in country music, and country music isn't like bluegrass. There's millions of dollars at stake here. Ya gotta conform. Hey, that Billy Ray fellow's big this year. Let's go down to the gym and sign up a few dozen more good-looking hunks. So what if they can't sing, play or write. But Krauss may have discovered the music industry's own contradiction: it constantly demands that its artists conform to the styles it has deemed saleable, yet secretly admires the artists who do not. This quality has made Krauss the most sought-after commodity on music row, and thus far, she has turned up her nose at them. "We talk with them [major labels]," Krauss told the Associated Press, "and it's not something we blow off. I think if you're going to take care of business you need to look at every avenue." So, she has chosen to remain with Rounder, the Cambridge-based label that went out on a limb and signed her as a 16-year-old bluegrass fiddling wunderkind in 1987. Rounder, which specializes in folk, bluegrass, Cajun, blues and other non-commercial forms of music has had one other "breakout" artist, George Thorogood, who bolted for a major label after two albums. "If we left [Rounder]," Krauss added, "I feel like it would mean something was wrong over there and there's nothing wrong. It's great -- everybody's happy." Playing hard-to-get hasn't prevented the major label sharks from pursuing her. It seems to make them want her more. "Next to my wife, and a few early girlfriends, I have never pursued a woman harder than I have Alison Krauss," Kyle Lehnin, president of Asylum Records told the New York Times. Another admirer is Jim Blum, a folk music programmer at WKSU-FM in Cleveland. He recalls hearing Union Station in 1986 at the Bluegrass Festival of the United States, held in the plaza in front of the Galt House, a grand old hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. "Myself, and a group of friends were up in my suite in the Galt House, up on the 11th floor," recalls Blum. "We had the windows open and we could hear the music but none of us were really paying much attention. Then we heard this voice. It was like someone pushed a button. Everyone stopped and just listened. Then we all ran out of the room and headed downstairs for the outside like the place was on fire. I can even remember what song she was singing. It was "What About You," the old Stanley Brothers song. She won the band contest there that year. It would have been '86." Krauss was 15. Two years later Blum brought Alison and Union Station to Northeast Ohio to play at the Raccoon Co. Music Festival at Burton's Century Village. Her first album, Too Late To Cry, was out and the buzz was starting. Since then, she has been here three more times: at Cain Park with Peter Rowan and the Nashville Bluegrass Band, at a Celtic Ceol concert at CWRU's Harkness Chapel, and last year at the Odeon. Blum recalls the last concert. "She has her own fans. They're not bluegrass fans, at least not the type you'd see at most bluegrass festival, but they're not just a yuppie crowd and not just trend-seekers. They really seemed to know her music. They knew when to clap; they knew the difference between a good mandolin solo and a great mandolin solo. It was one of the best concerts I've ever been associated with." The band Alison is touring with is completely different from the band that played at Raccoon Co. Original banjo player Mike Harmon is gone, replaced by former Weary Heart Ron Block. Guitarist Jeff White (now with Vince Gill's band) has been replaced by Dan Tyminski, formerly of the Lonesome River Band. Bass player and writer of many of Union Station's best songs John Pennell has left, with Barry Bales now handling bass. Several years ago the band added a mandolinist, former Dusty Miller member Adam Steffey, who also acts as M.C. Krauss appears completely comfortable with this group. She's spurned offers to go solo and seems to revel in the camaraderie of belonging to a band. In fact, she insists that Union Station's next album will be strictly a band project, without big name guest stars and with more emphasis on bluegrass. Despite her modesty, Krauss has won dozens of awards since she was eight years old. She was the scourge of the fiddle contest circuit, racking up rooms full of trophies including the National Grand Master title. There have been the CMA awards, three Grammies, a half-dozen or so IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) awards and in 1993, she became the first bluegrass artist in 29 years inducted into the Grand Old Opry. But it's the music that counts. Onstage she is complete concentration, letting her violin and her extraordinary soprano (often compared to Dolly Parton's) be her expression. Like many great artists whose talent matures early (Wynton Marsalis and YoYo Ma come to mind), Alison's performances, on stage and on record, are marked by an innate sense of restraint. So let's listen, enjoy and rejoice in the knowledge that for this 24-year-old, the future is wide open. We haven't heard nothin' yet.