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Bluegrass Krauss


08/23/2009 11:04 PM | By Paul Sexton, Telegraph Group

The most successful female Grammy-winning artist tracks her development on a new compilation album, Essential Alison Krauss.

Alison Krauss is wandering through a meadow, elegantly, if incongruously, attired in a black ball gown, her fingers languorously brushing the tall grass as she sings a dreamy ballad called Simple Love.

We are at her parents' farm, close to Nashville in sleepy Franklin, Tennessee, where every third building, it seems, is a church. The pastoral idyll is betrayed only by the close attentions of a lighting screen, a wind machine and a film crew. This is the scene of a television commercial for a new compilation album by the woman who has won more awards - 26 - than any other female artist in the history of the Grammys.

To recent converts, Krauss, who recently turned 38, is the sweet-voiced sidekick of Robert Plant on last year's Raising Sand collaboration. That album, conceived more as a flight of extra-curricular fancy than a career-changing landmark, has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide.

Longer-term fans know Krauss and her band, Union Station, as the much-feted ambassadors of that most traditional of American music forms, bluegrass. Her albums with, and without, the group have sold more than 11 million copies, in a career that began when she was 14. On July 21, Krauss played for a relocated Chicago couple called Barack and Michelle, in the White House Music Series hosted by the US First Lady.

Krauss was born nearly 400 miles from here in Decatur, Illinois, but as an accomplished fiddle player and somewhat more reluctant lead vocalist, she settled in Nashville.

"I still think of myself as from Illinois," she says. "I've never had a social scene here. It's always been work. But I haven't felt like I've lost my privacy. People are very kind. I'm not mainstream, so I don't have that kind of attention anyway."

She gets it from her parents, though, and why not?

Fred and Louise Krauss stand among the crew, quietly watching her like the proudest guardians in all America. Later, Fred will tell me that he and his wife have a Google news alert set up to relay to them, twice a day, every article about Alison. They must do a lot of reading.

Working about 11 straight hours here without complaint, Alison is warm, but with an almost other-worldly detachment about her.

I remind her that we previously met around the time of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers movie that spawned a multi-million-selling soundtrack, of which she was a key part. She confides that she has still not seen the film, nor does she even own a television.

"I found that when my son was little, the day just went better when it wasn't there. So one day it just 'got broke'," she smiles. Krauss lives with Sam, 10 this year, but was divorced from his father in 2001. She speaks quietly, and her dark eye make-up, pale complexion and unconventional features give her an ethereal air. She's like some bluegrass Dusty Springfield come down from the Appalachian mountains.

"I was into the second-generation bluegrass people more than anything," she tells me. "There's the Bill Monroe school, the Ralph Stanley school, and the Lester Flatt school and the Earl Scruggs school. My hero was Ralph, that kind of real mountain singing. Those records had, to me, the most mystery about them.

"Growing up, we had folk records. My grandmother played the piano, my mother played the guitar and we listened to Hank Williams and classical music, and saw every concert under the sun. Then I had some friends who had Top 40 radio on all the time. I listened to AC/DC for the first time, Highway to Hell, Carly Simon, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ELO."

That pop sensibility has always served as a sweetener for her traditional sound, and Krauss has covered songs by the Beatles, Michael McDonald, even the Sixties British chart chestnut Baby, Now That I've Found You by the Foundations, which features on the new anthology. She makes an erstwhile unrecognised connection between rock and bluegrass. "I always thought that white, hard, beautiful, melodic singing, by singers like Paul Rodgers and Frankie Miller, reminded me of a Ralph Stanley type of singing. Blue collar, hard working.

"They were tobacco farming in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. The singing styles gave me the same feeling."

Led Zeppelin was another band she discovered, which makes the association with Plant somewhat less surprising. But there was no element of hero-worship, just an immediate musical kinship.

"When I first met him, at a Leadbelly tribute, I saw that big hairdo; I said 'Robert,' he turns around, he's got these glasses on, and he goes 'There you are.' And the first thing he starts talking about is Ralph Stanley.

"He's very passionate about music. We were riding around making the record and he goes, 'Do you think something's wrong with me? My kids say, "We want a real dad, can't you be a normal dad?" and I'm like, "They're going to be waiting a long time.'''

"He's like [she speaks at double speed], 'Listen to this, this Egyptian singer, can you believe it, blaaaah' Just crazy. That's a really infectious, wonderful thing to be around."

The pair are planning a follow-up album. "It'll be different, as if we hadn't made the first," she says. "I love being in the world of the unknown."

Before that will come a new album with Union Station, for which sessions have begun in the past few days. To be in demand is a fine thing, but Krauss remembers when it wasn't like that. "When we started, there wasn't any money to be made playing bluegrass. You make your record, play the dates when they're there to be played, and stand out and sell your records for hours while you're not playing.

"We've all grown up with that mentality, and we've been lucky enough to reach a point when we can decide when we tour. It's hard to let go of that idea, but at some point when you're nearly 40 years old, you go, 'I really don't have to do that.'"

 
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