Alison Krauss is a singer and fiddle player from Champaign, Illinois. She was a precocious child, taking classical violin lessons at age five, but soon directing her interests to bluegrass music. Humorously noted by Wikipedia, “At the age of eight she started entering local talent contests, and at ten had her own band.” Early in life, she was better known as a champion fiddle player, while it took years to fully develop her sweet soprano voice. After appearing as a sideman on two albums, she recorded her first solo album, Too Late To Cry, at age sixteen. Her breakthrough album was her third, I’ve Got That Old Feeling in 1990, which earned her first Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Recording at the age of nineteen.
Alison Krauss and Union Station:
Alison Krauss (b. 1971), vocals, violin, viola
Barry Bales (b. 1969), bass, vocals
Ron Block (b. 1964), guitar, banjo, vocals, songwriter
Dan Tyminski (b. 1967), vocals, guitar, mandolin
Jerry Douglas (b. 1956), dobro, guitar
Other Important Contributors:
Though it received critical acclaim, I’ve Got That Old Feeling peaked at #61 on the Billboard Country Music album chart. It took a few more years for Alison Krauss and her band Union Station to achieve commercial success. After a pair of albums, the bluegrass Every Time You Say Goodbye and the gospel I Know Who Holds Tomorrow (with the Cox Family), Rounder Records released the compilation Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection in 1995, which reached #2 on the Billboard Country Album chart. In 1998, veteran dobro player Jerry Douglas joined Union Station, the final change to the band’s roster. Union Station responded with another creative peak, the studio album New Favorite in 2001, with a followup Live album and DVD in 2002. Ms. Krauss and Union Station continue to compose new music and tour, though less frequently than in the past. They are in demand as collaborators, and in the last few years, Krauss has performed many duets, most notably with Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant.
Though never a country music superstar, Alison Krauss enjoys great respect and admiration from her peers. She has won twenty-seven Grammy awards, tied with Quincy Jones for the second most Grammy awards of all time, behind classical musician George Solti. She helped popularize bluegrass music for a new generation, and is the rare bluegrass and gospel artist to transition successfully into both country and pop music.
Three Wonderful Concert Experiences
I’ve seen Alison Krauss & Union Station in concert about ten times. Among those concerts are three great experiences.
1990: A Small Church In Downtown Los Gatos
I was lucky to learn about Alison Krauss early in her career. I’m not sure how I discovered her; rather than a national publication like Rolling Stone magazine, I must have read a review in the San Francisco Chronicle. I purchased a copy of I’ve Got That Old Feeling in 1990, which prompted me to see her in concert if given the chance. For me, it was an uncommon case of love at first listen.
Still sketchy on details, but I learned that she was playing at a church in Los Gatos on a weekday evening in 1990, just a year or so after I began dating my future wife. I called the box office the day of the concert, and discovered the church seated only four hundred people, so we arrived a couple hours early to buy tickets and have dinner in the beautiful old town, at the foot of the coastal range where state highway 17 rises abruptly up to Summit Road and gently down to Santa Cruz.
The church was so spartan, with wooden benches twenty or twenty-five rows deep. It was packed; we were near the back, but close to the stage. There was a buzz as we approached and entered the church; many patrons knew she was special, and that we were lucky to see her in this intimate setting. The band did not disappoint, with their uptempo instrumentals, heartbreaking waltzes and modern bluegrass numbers, all to thunderous applause. It was very exciting.
The highlight of the evening came during the encore, when Alison politely asked, “If everybody promises to be quiet, then we’ll step out in front of the microphones and sing a song.” The enraptured crowd was silent as Alison sang Paul McCartney’s “I Will”, with Union Station standing behind her providing harmony, without amplification. Before or since, I have never seen anybody else do this in concert. In future years, she would often begin an encore with the group singing bluegrass style in front of a single microphone, but never again would we see her in such an intimate environment.
After the concert, Union Station set up a table out front with merchandise and did a meet and greet with the crowd. We said hello and bought a couple of the earlier CDs. I noticed they were a very tall band, big people. Krauss is about 5’8″, and both Barry Bales and Adam Steffey were over 6’3″.
Oaks Park, Sellwood, July, 1996
Three albums later and we still love Alison Krauss, seeing her at almost every opportunity. We are married and have moved to Portland, Oregon. Krauss had released the Now That I’ve Found You compilation and was getting famous. Still, we were seeing her at Oaks Park, an old amusement and recreation park, right on the Willamette River, in a part of town called Sellwood. There was an opening act, so when Union Station took the stage, it was getting dark, but it was the middle of summer and very pleasant outside. They played under an old open canopy onto a big lawn that went way back, with the concessions on the side. Perhaps there were a thousand to fifteen hundred people there. I had a couple glasses of wine before the concert and settled in briefly. After a couple songs, I went to the back of the property, had a quick smoke and then returned to our blanket under the stars all aglow. Alison started sounding real good. I can’t remember which song she was playing, but when the band followed with “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”, I completely lost it and the tears started streaming down my face. The canopy lights were on by now, and I was about 10 rows back, and during the song she saw my tear stained face, and I saw her face hesitate for just the briefest time. Eye contact and recognition for a half second. It was a unique moment in my life.
Down From The Mountain At The Schnitz, February 2002
Most people know the movie “O, Brother, Where Art Thou”, Joel and Ethan Coen’s interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey. The movie featured traditional music by Alison Krauss and other famous folk and bluegrass musicians, selected by producer T-Bone Burnett. The movie and its music were a rousing success, so the musicians organized and toured the country with a variety show of down home string music. At the time we had recently seen Alison Krauss at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, touring in support of New Favorite. Now she was returning as part of a variety country music show, something we had never experienced.
It deserved to be one of those special evenings of celebration. At the time I would look for special occasions for our parents to enjoy with us. I contacted our ticket broker, and he found us four tickets around the fourth or fifth row, right in the middle of the concert hall. Tickets were a couple hundred dollars apiece; well worth it given the circumstances. My Mom died in 1999, and her Dad in 2000. Concert night was February 13th, 2002, just a year and a day before my Dad died. There was a sense of urgency.
We asked my Dad and her Mom whether they’d like to go, and Dad flew up from California, and we all got dressed up, and had dinner downtown, and sat down close. In particular, my mother-in-law was thrilled, as this constituted her last date night in life. My father was kind, and represented an opportunity to be herself, to be on a proper date, walking arm and arm with somebody safe. Faces were aglow, and everybody was ready.
We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but soon we started to see how the music was presented. Artists would come on stage and play two or three songs, followed by the next artist, and so on. Early in the show, I look over and see Dad tearing up when Norman and Nancy Blake offered a unadorned rendition of “You Are My Sunshine”, one of the simplest songs offered during the two hour jubilee.
It was clear Alison Krauss was feeling ill. She dropped out of some later performances in the show, though early on she and Union Station rocked the house with their syncopated rhythms. I can see Daddy looking at me with raised eyebrows, after Jerry Douglas produced a wild flourish of notes over Union Station’s precise, crazy rhythms. Krauss returned to sing “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” a capella, with Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris. Later, the Nashville Bluegrass Band weaved their string magic on the night. Patty Loveless was there. Ralph Stanley was there, too. Another great evening in life, with Alison Krauss at the center of this brief folk music renaissance.
Alison Krauss Song Notes:
1. The videos are not well organized, and that’s OK. Since she is a relatively modern artist in the context of this blog, Alison Krauss has perhaps the best and most videos of any artist to choose from. I included a disproportionate number of videos from her earliest days, as I tend to like the earlier, strictly bluegrass music better. I enjoy all the videos presented.
2. In the last three weeks, I challenged my wife Cheryl a few times to name a better female performer/bandleader than Alison Krauss. I received no answer, and could not come up with one myself, though we discussed Aretha Franklin as the consensus favorite. The two share the ability to both sing and play very well, with Alison Krauss on fiddle, and Aretha Franklin an underrated piano player. Their instrumental prowess lifts them to the top. Franklin, and singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald are perhaps more influential, but the song list and countdown says Alison Krauss is my favorite female musician. She’s so talented, and so dreamy.
3. “Rich Woman (Live)” by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss is found on Rounder Records 40th Anniversary Collection. A better version of this song.
4. The Live album is excellent, with one reservation. There is too much time allocated for the audience cheering wildly. We get it. We already thought she was the best.
5. “Foolish Heart” is special, as it is the rare song that wasn’t even in the collection when I started the review. After adding it as a one star song, I decided about the third or fourth time through that it is a four or even five star song, which up until this time, hasn’t happened while doing the countdown of artists. Alison Brown plays banjo here, and having the two young female stars together makes it even more notable. “Foolish Heart” is an underrated and largely unrecognized gem.
6. Several times I felt foolish rating Alison Krauss songs, just embarrassed by what I was doing. Maybe it’s that she’s a girl, and such a humble, unassuming person that makes feel like a dope evaluating her life’s work.
7. Alison Krauss has remained faithful to Rounder Records her entire career, which may have made a significant difference in her career arc. Perhaps remaining with the minor label freed her to follow her artistic instincts, rather than attempting to capitalize on talent with grand popularity.
8. Cheryl’s Mom passed away on February 5th this year. We were fortunate to have her for ten extra years after the other parents were gone. But we never enjoyed an evening of entertainment again as much as Down From The Mountain.
Alison Krauss Songs:
Down To The River To Pray (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★★
Endless Highway, Alison Krauss ★★★★
Let Me Touch You For Awhile, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★★
Foolish Heart, Alison Krauss ★★★★
In The Palm Of Your Hand, Alison Krauss & The Cox Family ★★★
The Lucky One, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★
Baby, Now That I’ve Found You, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★
Every Time You Say Goodbye, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★
I’ve Got That Old Feeling, Alison Krauss ★★★
Steel Rails, Alison Krauss ★★★
I’ll Fly Away (Live), Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch ★★★
The Lucky One (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★
Every Time You Say Goodbye (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★
Who Can Blame You, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★
New Favorite (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
New Favorite, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Jacob’s Dream, Alison Krauss ★★
Dark Skies, Alison Krauss ★★
It’s Over, Alison Krauss ★★
Ghost In This House, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Let Me Touch You For Awhile (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Lose Again, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Cluck Old Hen (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
When You Say Nothing At All (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Oh, Atlanta (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
There Is A Reason (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Choctaw Hayride, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Crazy Faith, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Daylight, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Oh, Atlanta, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
I Will, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
When You Say Nothing At All, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Paper Airplane, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Tonight I’ll Be Lonely Too, Alison Krauss ★
Too Late To Cry, Alison Krauss ★
Gentle River, Alison Krauss ★
Sleep On, Alison Krauss ★
Never Will Give Up, Alison Krauss & The Cox Family ★
Another Night, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★
Last Love Letter, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★
It Won’t Work This Time, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★
Choctaw Hayride (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★
Ghost In This House (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★
Faraway Land (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★
Take Me For Longing, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★
Looking In The Eyes Of Love, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★
Beaumont Rag, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★
As Lovely As You, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★
Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On), Robert Plant & Alison Krauss ★★
Rich Woman (Live), Robert Plant & Alison Krauss ★★
Please Read The Letter, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss ★
Polly Come Home, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss ★
Make The World Go Away (featuring Alison Krauss), Jamey Johnson ★★
Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch ★
You’re Still The One (Live), Shania Twain w/ Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow, The Soggy Bottom Boys ★★★
I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow, Bob Dylan ★
Baby Now That I’ve Found You, The Foundations ★★★
I Will, The Beatles ★★★★
I Will (Alt), The Beatles ★★
Beaumont Rag, Doc Watson ★
Oh, Atlanta, Bad Company (not included in collection)