At 42, Alison Krauss is the queen of bluegrass
Alison Krauss is on the phone from her home in Nashville, so it’s impossible to tell if she’s cracking a smile or maybe cringing just a little. She’s definitely kidding. When congratulated for recently celebrating her 20th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, Krauss is then asked if such a milestone makes her feel older than she is.
“I just look older than I really am,” she says. “I told my son, just call me ‘Memaw.’ I’m so old now.”
The punch line is that Krauss turned 42 earlier this week. The Opry anniversary is just one of several achievements that have made Krauss something of a matriarch in the worlds of bluegrass and country music, as a singer with her band, Union Station, a fiddler, and a producer.
Mostly in the field of bluegrass, she has won more Grammy Awards than any other female for a total of 27. Perhaps her most high-profile moment came in 2009, when she stood onstage with Robert Plant and accepted the Grammy for album of the year for “Raising Sand.” It marked a big win for both Krauss and Rounder Records, the Burlington-based label that’s been Krauss’s home since the mid-1980s.
Even though she started making solo records in her teens, she rejects the idea that she was a prodigy.
“I don’t know how driven I was, but I liked to do a good job at whatever I was doing. I loved music and I thought about it all the time, but I wasn’t driven as far as necessarily wanting a career like this,” says Krauss, who headlines the Boston Globe WGBH Summer Arts Weekend, presented by Citizens Bank, on Sunday. (She’ll be playing in a trio setting instead of her usual gigs with Union Station.)
It turned out that she didn’t have much control over that. She quickly became renowned for not just her fiddle playing, but rather her voice, whose dulcet tones made Krauss sound like a nightingale. Hers is a small instrument that’s incredibly expressive and sweet, which made her an anomaly among bluegrass singers, especially young ones.
“My age came up a lot,” she says of those early days. “I’m thrilled I’ve had a career like this, that I’ve made the records that I wanted to make. It’s been incredibly rewarding. I’m thrilled that I’ve stayed with Rounder as long as I have. It’s been a wonderful relationship.”
Rounder would agree. Ken Irwin, one of the label’s founders, signed Krauss when she was just 13. He still remembers the day he received her demo on cassette, back when Krauss was working with a group called Classified Grass. It wasn’t until the fourth song that Krauss sang lead, and Irwin was hooked.
“I said, ‘Wow, what is this?’ ” he says. “Her voice was beautiful, pure, on pitch. It really pulled you in. You wanted to lean in to listen.”
“I think she has evolved in many ways, especially her singing style. When she started out, there weren’t many vocalists who could serve as a role model for a voice like hers,” Irwin says. “There were a few women in bluegrass — Hazel Dickens, Cousin Emmy, Rose Maddox — but they all tended to be belters. Ralph Stanley and Tony Rice were among her early influences. She really had to invent the wheel. It wasn’t reinventing. Alison found her voice and in doing so helped to find a voice for a whole generation of female vocalists.”
For her part, Krauss has been happy to stay with Rounder.
“I think that back when there were offers to go other places, I was young and still living at home. There wasn’t the worry of finances. I wasn’t paying rent yet,” she says. “I was able to make a decision for myself that wasn’t affected by real life, really.”
“I was like, ‘Why would I go someplace else or have somebody try to change what I’m doing when I’m able to make records like I want to make them?’,” she adds. “Not that I didn’t take meetings, because I did. But I just wasn’t interested in doing that at that point in my life.”
Now that she’s practically considered a pillar in modern bluegrass, Krauss has surely influenced younger generations, from Chris Thile and Punch Brothers to Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan, the Newton-raised Crooked Still singer whose song “Lay My Burden Down” Krauss recorded on 2011’s “Paper Airplane,” her most recent album with Union Station.
Krauss says she hasn’t paid too much attention to the current crop of Americana artists, mostly because she’s been busy with her own projects.
“I’ve been knee deep in my own song search,” she says, adding that a new album with Union Station is in the works. “I like to go back to music that I listened to as a kid to get to that place of feeling inspired. But I really like Aoife.”
Krauss’s ascent to mainstream recognition wasn’t necessarily apparent to her. After so many years as a working and touring musician, her schedule and level of fame were simply what they were.
“Whatever record you’re making at the time feels like the only one you’ve ever made and the only one you’re ever going to make,” she says, and then laughs at a particular moment when she realized that maybe her star was bigger than she had previously thought.
“I guess old plastic-surgery rumors made me think, ‘Wow, I can’t even believe anybody would be paying enough attention to say whether or not they thought I had plastic surgery,’ ” she says. “And then it makes me laugh because I think, ‘And this is where I would have stopped?’ ”