The history of country music has long included women who have sought the crossover audience, tailoring their music so it will be more palatable to pop and adult contemporary radio formats. Alison Krauss is the only woman in history to successfully pull off the reverse: keeping her music as pure as she chooses and having the crossover audience come to her.
Krauss was a child prodigy who began playing fiddle at the age of five. Though she initially played classic violin music, she switched to bluegrass shortly thereafter, and by the age of eight she was competing in local talent contests. When she was just thirteen years old, she won the Walnut Valley Festival Fiddle Championship, and she was named Most Promising Fiddler in the Midwest by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass in America. It was at these festivals that she met all of the future members of Union Station, a band that she joined at the invitation of John Pennell, a bassist she had often performed with since she was 12.
In addition to performing with Union Station, Krauss began to document her talents on record, contributing to the 1985 independent album Different Strokes. Krauss signed with Rounder Records in 1987, and she was sixteen when they released her debut solo album, Too Late to Cry. Union Station backed her on the record, but weren’t credited as lead artists. This changed in 1989, when her second album Two Highways was released under the name Alison Krauss & Union Station, beginning a long history of her recording with the band that continues to this day.
Her contract with Rounder at the time required her to alternate between solo releases and albums with the band, so 1990 brought the solo set I’ve Got That Old Feeling. The album received her best reviews to date by a wide margin, and it earned her the first Grammy of her career, for Best Bluegrass Recording. By this time, Krauss had become a major star in the bluegrass field, and her label saw potential for a wider market, given that her sales were much higher than typical for the genre. They promoted “Steel Rails” to country radio, and it briefly dented the singles chart. Also, a video clip for the title cut was played heavily on Country Music Television.
Her strong run in bluegrass circles was evident by her domination at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, where Krauss received several Female Vocalist trophies in the early nineties. She also continued to win Grammy awards, as she was honored for her next Union Station release Every Time You Say Goodbye and her 1994 collaboration with The Cox Family, I Know Who Holds Tomorrow. Krauss’ credibility with the country audience also began to rise, as she was invited to sing with Dolly Parton on record and on stage, to collaborate on a track with Shenandoah, and to contribute to a Keith Whitley tribute album.
This set the stage for her big commercial breakthrough. The Shenandoah track became a top ten country hit, and her cover of Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing at All” went top five. Krauss included both tracks on Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection, which was a greatest hits album of sorts. The album was a shocking success, selling over two million copies. Krauss won Grammys for both the Shenandoah hit and her cover of the Foundations classic “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”, and she swept the CMA awards in the Fall of 1995, winning four awards: Female Vocalist, Horizon, Single and Vocal Event.
Krauss and Union Station backed Vince Gill on “High Lonesome Sound” the following year, and that won them another Grammy. She was nominated the same night in the Best Female Country Vocal Performance race for “Baby Mine,” her tender contribution to The Best of Country Sing the Best of Disney. Amazingly, Krauss had not adjusted her sound at all, but the mainstream success came anyway.
Critics who wondered if she would pander to her new audience by embracing a crossover sound were silenced when her next album, So Long So Wrong, was devoid of any such compromises. It became a gold record and won her and Union Station another pair of Grammys. In another sign of her credibility in unexpected places, Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon chose to use the track “It Doesn’t Matter” in the opening episode of his hit show’s second season, and it was later included in the show’s first soundtrack, alongside a crop of alternative rock songs also used on the show.
Krauss released the solo studio album Forget About It in 1999, and it continued her successful ways, selling gold and winning her another Grammy. The videos for the title track and “Maybe” received heavy rotation on CMT, and the opening track “Stay” became her first adult contemporary hit. She won several major awards, including the Grammy and CMA awards for Album of the Year, for her contributions to the massively successful O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, which brought renewed attention to her catalog and stimulated sales of her older work.
Krauss and Union Station entered the most prolific and successful period of their long career together in the wake of the soundtrack’s success, as their next three albums – two studio releases (New Favorite, Lonely Runs Both Ways) and the two-disc Live won seven Grammys and became top-sellers. By this point, Krauss was already the best-selling bluegrass artist in history by a wide margin, and she was in wide demand as a collaborator. She harmonized with Kenny Rogers on his #1 comeback hit “Buy Me a Rose,” teamed up with James Taylor on the Grammy-winning “How’s the World Treating You,” and won multiple ACM and CMA awards for her duet with Brad Paisley, “Whiskey Lullaby.” Krauss was also invited to sing on the Academy Awards, where she sang multiple songs from the Cold Mountain soundtrack.
She had accumulated so many guest appearances by 2007 that she was able to release a second compilation, A Hundred Miles or More, which combined her non-album material with several new songs, which became her seventh gold album. While some were surprised to see her recording a revival of the classic eighties pop hit “Missing You” with John Waite, she fully demonstrated the breadth of her appeal when she collaborated with Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant. Their 2007 album Raising Sand was a surprise hit, selling more than a million copies without any support from radio, which led to a popular co-headlining tour this year.
The lead single from the set, “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” won the Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals Grammy earlier this year. It was Krauss’ twenty-first Grammy win, five more than any other woman in history, three more than any other country act and seventh among all-time winners overall. The wins are a testament to Krauss’ enduring credibility as an artist, one of those rare musicians who has achieved massive success on her own terms, with nary an adjustment for the expectations of others. Her ability to reach a wide audience without relying on radio hits is virtually unprecedented, and is an encouraging sign that great artistry can indeed triumph over crass commercialism, even if those instances are few and far between.
- “When You Say Nothing at All,” 1995
- “Baby Now That I’ve Found You,” 1995
- “Forget About It,” 1999
- “The Lucky One,” 2001
- “I’ll Fly Away,” 2001
- “Whiskey Lullaby,” 2004
- “Restless,” 2004
- “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On),” 2007
- I’ve Got That Old Feeling, 1990
- Every Time You Say Goodbye, 1992
- So Long So Wrong, 1997
- Forget About It, 1999
- Live, 2002
- Lonely Runs Both Ways, 2004
- Raising Sand, 2007
- ACM Video (“Whiskey Lullaby”), 2005
- ACM Vocal Event (“Whiskey Lullaby”), 2005
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1995
- CMA Horizon Award, 1995
- CMA Single (“When You Say Nothing at All”), 1995
- CMA Album (O Brother Where Art Thou), 2001
- CMA Musical Event (“Whiskey Lullaby”), 2004
- CMA Video (“Whiskey Lullaby”), 2004
- Grammy: Best Bluegrass Recording (I’ve Got That Old Feeling), 1991
- Grammy: Best Bluegrass Album (Every Time You Say Goodbye), 1993
- Grammy: Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album (I Know Who Holds Tomorrow), 1995
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Baby Now That I’ve Found You”), 1996
- Grammy: Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (“Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart”), 1996
- Grammy: Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (“High Lonesome Sound”), 1997
- Grammy: Best Bluegrass Album (So Long So Wrong), 1998
- Grammy: Best Country Instrumental Performance (“Little Liza Jane”), 1998
- Grammy: Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals (“Looking in the Eyes of Love”), 1998
- Grammy: Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (“Same Old Train”), 1999
- Grammy: Album of the Year (O Brother Where Art Thou), 2002
- Grammy: Best Bluegrass Album (New Favorite), 2002
- Grammy: Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals (“The Lucky One”), 2002
- Grammy: Best Contemporary Folk Album (This Side), 2003
- Grammy: Best Bluegrass Album (Live), 2004
- Grammy: Best Country Instrumental Performance (“Cluck Old Hen”), 2004
- Grammy: Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (“How’s the World Treating You”), 2005
- Grammy: Best Country Album (Lonely Runs Both Ways), 2006
- Grammy: Best Country Instrumental Performance (“Unionhouse Branch”), 2006
- Grammy: Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals (“Restless”), 2006
- Grammy: Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (“Gone Gone Gone [Done Moved On]”), 2008
I have Krauss at #23 in my list and I think that I have her ranked too high but…
… thirty ago bluegrass was almost dead as a genre. Radio never played it, the albums didn’t sell and aside from the festival goers, no one gave flip. Today bluegrass is still a minority taste but artists like Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent and Ricky Skaggs sell respectible amounts of product, the videos get airplay as do some of the CDs and you hear the bluegrass influence in a lot of the recorded product with instruments such as mandolins, fiddles and banjos are used in many “mainstream” country recordings
Although Ricky Skaggs is probably the main reason for the bluegrass resurgence, artists such as Alison Krauss, have certainly spread the music’s appeal. Among pop music and modern country music fans, Alison would undoubtedly rate Krauss as bluegrass’s #1 female singer whereas bluegrass fans and fans of traditional country music would consider Rhonda Vincent #1 .
Either way , Krauss is a fine musician and singer, and like Emmylouy Harris, tends to shine in harmony vocal roles. Her duet with Marty Raybon (Shenandoah) on “Somewhere In The Vicinity of The Heart” is one of the great duets, and arguably her finest recording
I’ve seen her a few times live now and what absolutely blows my mind is that she consistently sounds just as good or better than she does on record. And it goes without saying that her tone is just incredible; it evokes the purest musical traditions while somehow managing to sound completely unlike anything that’s ever come before it. Give it a decade or two for music historians to start talking; I think she’ll go down in history as one of the greatest voices in any genre of music and certainly one of the elite in country.
*I’ve seen her live a few times now
I guess since Vince Gill is my favorite singer, it makes sense that I love Alison’s voice too.
Now, I can’t wait to see the rankings on the top ten. I think I may be missing someone though.
I cut my previous comment short.
So, I wanted to add that I think my absolute favorite song by Alison is “If I Didn’t Know Any Better” from her Lonely Runs Both Ways album. Her vocals are haunting and Douglas’ dobro gets me everytime. Alison’s voice is angelic–that’s the only way that I know how to describe it.
Like Emmylou Harris– the only person I’d rank ahead of Krauss as the finest harmony singer in the history of popular music– Krauss brings a certain element of class to all of her projects, which is why I think her fanbase extends well beyond that of many other country artists. Not that she’s “bigger” or “better” than country music, but that many people who don’t necessarily care for mainstream country music– even the pop-country of the crossover divas– appreciate what she does.
As I mentioned in the Patty Loveless comment thread, Krauss’ demo skews a bit toward the NPR crowd. As Paul stated above, whereas most Bluegrass purists respect her talents, they don’t necessarily feel like what she does represents pure Bluegrass.
Which draws another comparison to Emmylou– however minutely people want to nit-pick about her specific genre placement, Country Music is lucky to be able to claim Alison Krauss as one of its own.
I fully expect her to need a new shelf for her already insane Grammy trophy case this year. Raising Sand seems like a lock to land a nomination for Album of the Year (and, presumably, Pop Vocal Album, if NARAS sticks to the same correct genre placement as it did last year), with “Please Read the Letter” a solid bet for Pop Vocal Collaboration and possibly even an outside shot at Record of the Year.
It’s very hard these days to stick to your artistic guns and be popular at the same time, but Alison has done a bang-up job on both counts. And while she is certainly admired to the hilt by her peers inside the country and bluegrass genres, she is also widely respected well beyond them–even more so thanks to her collaboration with Robert Plant. She had already done a lot to revive bluegrass well before the days of O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, and her ability to push the musical envelope with Plant is to be commended, in my opinion. Here’s to her continued great success.
Oh yeah. Raising Sand is Grammy bait for sure.
Alison certainly deserves to be on this list, but I am sorry…she shouldn’t be this high! She doesn’t hold a candle to the accomplishments and contributions of people such as Barbara Mandrell. I am disappointed to see such a bad choice so close to the top 10…..
One of the things that I think stands out about Alison and a lot of other women already on the list (and the ten others to come) is that they understand the basic history, roots, and traditions of country music. This isn’t a knock against the entertainment value that Barbara and Shania bring to the table, mind you. But people like Alison do a lot to keep country music alive as an art form by exploring and rediscovering its past and how relevant that past is to country music’s future. It’s the kind of thing that most artists we hear on the radio really aren’t doing these days.
Well said, Erik.
I like what Erik said because that is what Alison has done is stayed true to who and what she is, without selling out to sell music or sell out concert halls. I believe that she is acurately placed.
I have to laugh, because my husband a true metalhead absolutely loves her voice and he liked it long before she ever recorded with Robert Plant – he says it is one of the truest voices he has ever heard and I have to agree her voice is true and her playing is amazing.
Alison is fantastic but Barbara and Shania should have been ahead of her. I do like her angelic voice very much and of course my favorite moments are when she sang back up for Shania on several occasions such as the Flameworthy Awards, several times to Dolly’s wonderful song “Coat Of Many Colors” as well as on Shania’s network special in its entirety that received fine ratings. They are so different yet fit the same area vocally that they blend very well. Gotta love the bluegrass twist.
I absolutely love and adore Alison!!!! How on earth can Ms. T say she’s a “bad” choice to be near the top 10?????? She has one of THE most beautiful voices I have ever heard and has turned me onto bluegrass. Also, she is one hell of a fiddler and record producer. Her collaboration with Robert Plant has made me a super fan and I am so glad I have discovered her. To be quite honest, if I were to do my own poll, she would be in the top 10. Anyways, I don’t take these lists seriously at all since they are just all a matter of personal opinion when it boils down to it.
Her collaboration with Robert Plant has made me a super fan and I am so glad I have discovered her. To be quite honest, if I were to do my own poll…
CMT ranked her as #12, so not too far off either