Alison Krauss is one of the most seasoned veterans that country music has in its ranks. Over the course of her career, she has seen it all. She has watched the industry change hands from sausage-fingered old men to svelte young women. She has witnessed an entire generation of cross-breeding between country, bluegrass, and pop. And she has played what she wanted, when she wanted, even while country music was transforming itself from a kind of backcountry curiosity into a full-blown pop culture phenomenon. Tracing the arc of her career backwards with your finger, you can see her throughout it all, riding the crest of country music’s Denim Revolution. And just three weeks ago, Alison Krauss turned 29.
It’s true, she’s young. But she has more experience under her guitar strap than many musicians twice her age. Just look at her resume. In 1983, the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music named Krauss as one of the best fiddle players in the nation; a couple years later, she inked her first deal with Rounder Records. In 1993, she toured the country opening for Garth Brooks, at the precise moment when big-money country began to storm American suburbs like a second sagebrush rebellion. And last year, during the sessions that would form her current breakaway album, Forget About It, she took the center mic with Dolly Parton and Lyle Lovett in the wings, singing backup. To be sure, there’s never been a musician who got this big this soon, without ever quite hitting the big time.
But by all appearances, that’s the way Krauss wants it. In her 18 years as an artist, she has always played fast and loose with the labels that critics tried to stick to her, choosing instead to experiment with new sounds and styles. Almost universally, her work has been described as bluegrass, although the more entrenched members of that camp might object—Krauss describes Forget About It, in fact, as “the least bluegrass record we’ve ever done.” “Country” is certainly a more legible shorthand for what she does, but even that fails to describe her eye-widening crossover appeal. Just think of her as a balladeer. That’s the only safe way to understand her, in the same way that we have come to understand other great women of American song, the ones who are better known for their guts and their soulfulness than for any short-lived market cachet. Think of women like Kelly Willis, the pencil-boned Texas crooner; or Patsy Cline, the anguished maverick; or Kathy Mattea, the angelic Nashville singer who was never cool, even when country was. That is the stock that Alison Krauss was whelped from.
And with the matter of labels cleared away, you are free to focus on Krauss’ real power, her voice. It hones the ear like a whetstone. It is as sharp and as delicate as antique glass. And it is heart-rending enough to convince even the most jaded listener that every song she sings is a song of experience. Krauss, it seems, is a performer who will always be in her prime.
Alison Krauss and Union Station play the University Theatre next Thursday, Aug. 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets $26 advance, $28 day of show. Call 1-888-MONTANA.