Bluegrass star Alison Krauss pushes her music in new directions
By Michael McCall
AUGUST 16, 1999: As Alison Krauss releases the boldest album of her career, she might be expected to harbor a few concerns. Indeed, the bluegrass wunderkind does admit to being nervous about something. "Craters in my face in the pictures," she laughs. "That's what I'm worried about."
Other than that, she suggests, why worry? So what if she has taken a radical step by creating a pop-oriented album devoid of mountain music conventions? And so what if her pop move lacks pounding drums, overt dance rhythms, sequenced keyboards, or other modern-radio contrivances?
Krauss shrugs off the gamble she's taken. "When we make a record," she says, speaking of her small cadre of collaborators, "we get the songs together that I like, and we do 'em how they should be done. I don't let anything else sway me."
That may sound perfectly logical. But in this era of arch commercial calculation--when the majority of pop and country artists speak of making hits rather than making music--Krauss' dedication to her muse is rare. Would any other young, million-selling artist in Nashville dare to release an album without gearing a single song toward radio play?
"I really don't think about that," she says, explaining that her own litmus test comes from her bandmates and from longtime engineer Gary Pacsoza. "If the band likes it, then I'm satisfied. That's pretty much all I'm thinking about when I'm making a record. What's the band going to think? What's Gary going to say? If they're happy with it, it makes me feel good."
With Forget About It, which came out Aug. 3, everyone is satisfied, and rightfully so: The album is a stunningly powerful document that, on its own quiet terms, accomplishes something revolutionary. Instead of straining to capture the rhythms of urban life, Krauss weaves acoustic instruments with her beautiful, crystalline voice to create a sweetly tender pop album that assays the emotional fallout of lost love. When she softly intones, "Tell me what an empty heart must feel," or when she despairingly whispers, "I'm living proof of the damage that heartbreak does," the words resonate with an abiding ache that no chest-beating diva or pounding drum loop could ever equal. At age 28, after a career full of good-to-outstanding albums, Krauss has created her first masterpiece.
A native of Champaign, Ill., who has resided in Nashville since leaving home nearly a decade ago, Krauss fell under bluegrass' spell at age 12, thanks to her early musical mentor, John Pennell. Although she'd been a fan of chord-crunching hard rock--she still counts Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Bad Company among her favorites--the young violinist became "completely nuts" about bluegrass. With the help of a succession of carefully picked bandmates, Krauss gradually developed a unique style by embracing the old-time music of Appalachia and finding a personal way to modernize it.
Early on, the bluegrass prodigy began experimenting with her arrangements. By 1991, she'd incorporated drums and piano into her recordings, drawing criticism from pious elements of the bluegrass faithful. But she ignored the naysayers, and her popularity steadily grew until she exploded onto the national scene with a couple of outstanding cover songs that had little to do with bluegrass. Her palpably emotional version of "When You Say Nothing At All," from a tribute album to the late Keith Whitley, became a huge country hit in 1995, eventually becoming the Country Music Association single of the year. (The same year, Krauss won three other major CMA honors, including female vocalist of the year.) She followed that with another hit, a beautifully rendered pop-country cover of "Baby, Now That I Found You," which had been a hit in 1966 for The Foundations.
In 1995, Krauss also scored a hit duet with Shenandoah on "Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart." But since then, despite several similarly powerful singles, she hasn't returned to the radio charts. The reason is simple: She doesn't enjoy the financial backing of a major record conglomerate. Despite outlandishly lucrative offers from every top record label on Music Row, Krauss has remained loyal to Boston-based Rounder Records, a smaller company that doesn't own the financial muscle of companies like MCA or RCA (the latter of which originally put her on the charts by promoting her Whitley cover and her Shenandoah duet).
It doesn't matter that fans have voiced their fervent interest in Krauss by deluging radio stations with calls and by lining up to buy her albums. It doesn't even matter that she has continued to create outstanding music. Without the economic clout to play the corrupt money game that rules the record and radio industries, Krauss doesn't have a chance of getting played on big radio stations--no matter how good she might be, and no matter how many fans call up and request her songs.
That's a shame, of course, because she easily ranks among the most talented female artists of her generation--and, as her new record proves, she's one of the most compelling and interesting as well.
But Krauss remains content. "I couldn't be happier," she says, commenting on both her career status and her choice of record companies. With a larger company, she says, she'd likely face ongoing pressures while making an album. Record executives would involve themselves in her selection of songs and in how she arranged them. They would make sure she thought about radio too. She worries that she would react to such pressure by trying to meet their expectations, and that eventually she would start making records differently than she does now.
"I'm real insecure as it is when I'm making a record," she explains. "If I played something for someone and didn't get the reaction I was expecting, I'd start to second-guess myself. I'd be a basket case, and it would muck up the whole thing for me."
Instead, she insulates herself with people she trusts. Once the record is finished, she delivers it to her record company for packaging and distribution. She's happy with this process, she says. Even without massive radio play, she's successful enough to play small theaters and music venues that cater to good sound. "That's really about as big as I want to get," she says.
Krauss has had a taste of bigger things. In 1995, she toured as Garth Brooks' opening act. While she appreciated the chance to reach a larger audience, it's not an experience she wants to repeat. "That whole deal is about putting on a show," she says. "We don't really do that. We just play music. That's really what I want: to make good records, and to go out and play good songs. And I want to play 'em in places where I can hear my band and where I can hear myself. That's just the ultimate to me."
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