I am not sure what angels look like, but I know what they sound like. They sound like Alison Krauss.
Alison Krauss is approaching her fortieth birthday this year as the most awarded female performer in Grammy history and a coveted partner with a multitude of performers as disparate as Robert Plant, Yo Yo Ma, and James Taylor who have sought her out to bring her special crystal like clarity to their projects, regardless of the genre. She is a Ramparts selection for People We Should Know for her seminal position as the bridge between modern American and Americana music that has brought to light so many talented musicians and preserved the underpinnings of Americana music, most notably “bluegrass”, to a larger audience of appreciative listeners than ever before.
Alison is first and foremost a musician of the first order, performing in the lead fiddle position in a band filled with virtuosos, Union Station. The special influences that have created Americana and bluegrass music, the musical traditions of Scotch-Irish, Welsh, and English immigrants, are mixed in with the strains of African American jazz influences, with its improvisational nature, to create the blend known as bluegrass. Bluegrass icon Bill Monroe described it as a “high lonesome sound”, reflecting the rural and isolated nature of the immigrants of Appalachia separated from easy access to the American mainstream. His Kentucky roots led him to call his ensemble the Bluegrass Boys, and with it the formal birth of the American musical genre known as bluegrass. Union Station has raised the standard of play to virtuoso level, with Alison on lead vocal and fiddle, Dan Tyminski on mandolin, guitar, and fiddle, Ron Block on guitar and banjo, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Barry Bales on bass performing with an unmatched precision and capability. There may not be a performing ensemble currently performing in the United States in any genre as balanced with talent as Union Station. The blending of bluegrass and pop influence by Union Station is non-traditional, but what preserves the connectivity with bluegrass purists is the angelic sixth instrument of the group, Alison’s singing voice. This unique instrument produces a pitch perfect vibrato-less sound like a wind chime, and no one who has heard it live can fail to be elevated on a spiritual plane. The voice was identified by the Coen Brothers as the siren call to color their movie “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” with a mythical texture that fit both the distinctly American culture and the ancient Grecian saga comprising the story. The musical score became a best seller, and Alison and Dan Tyminski as the musical stars.
Alison, born in Illinois of a family with Mississippi roots, studied classical violin, but early on began performing in local fiddler’s contests, and was immediately identified as a special talent. She was invited into Union Station at age 16, and has maintained a twenty year relationship with these superb performers, moving seamlessly back and forth from the band to more experimental solo pop, gospel, folk, and classical performances. She remains a performer with a completely unadorned stage presence, who never fails to capture her audience with her wit and unassuming nature. The telltale sign of her immense talent, however, is the quiet rapture of every audience when she sings, with the complete absence of coughing and stirring while she sings, as if the listener has heard celestial chimes for the first time. Its a special event when she performs, and one I have had the pleasure to experience personally.
The music she has produced with Union Station, and a very special performance of a song from “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” with her trio collaboration with country bluegrass legends Emmy Lou Harris and Gillian Welsh is put forth for your viewing pleasure below. The ever present historical link that connects the modern listener with the very ancient strains of the earliest American immigrants, and the uniquely powerful role that this American performer plays in its preservation, makes Alison Krauss a very special #13 on Ramparts People We Should Know.