Don't paint this singer blue

Music: Alison Krauss may play and sing bluegrass, but she's more than a one-note artist. Have banjo, will play bluegrass

August 13, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

For someone whose music most people would have no problem putting into a pigeonhole, Alison Krauss is very careful about labels.

As far as music fans are concerned, she's probably the best-known bluegrass singer in the business. A regular winner at both the Grammy and Country Music Association award shows, Krauss has managed to maintain a pop star profile at a time when bluegrass barely registers on the average listener's radar. After all, no other bluegrass artists can boast of releasing platinum albums, as Krauss has with 1995's 2 million-selling "Now That I've Found You."

Yet if you ask the 28-year-old singer and violinist to describe her latest release, "Forget About It," she refuses to use the b-word.

"Well, I don't consider this a bluegrass record," she says, over the phone from her record company's offices in Nashville. Nor does she want her listeners to think, because she has roots in bluegrass, that anything she does is therefore bluegrass.

"Where purists get so angry is when they think that we're saying that some of this stuff with drums and piano is bluegrass," she says. "I don't pretend that it is."

She laughs, and adds, half-jokingly, "Just to clear that up."

Krauss knows, of course, that most folks would find it hard to believe that using piano or drums on a record could be considered controversial. But Krauss and her band, Union Station, have been taking flak for her less-than-traditional approach to bluegrass ever since she made her name as a teen-age fiddle virtuoso.

"There's been so much controversy on whether we're a bluegrass band or not -- since, really, Day 1 -- that I don't even think about it anymore," she says.

"I consider the band to be a bluegrass band," the Illinois native adds. "We don't always play bluegrass, but we are primarily a bluegrass band. We have bluegrass instruments." She laughs, and points out mockingly, "We travel with a banjo every time we go out."

Krauss is a real kidder over the phone, blessed with a bright, Rosie O'Donnell-ish delivery and a wry, self-deprecating wit. She's so merry, in fact, that her personal demeanor almost seems at odds with the often heartbreaking content of the songs she sings.

Krauss, it turns out, is a connoisseur of depressing songs -- emotionally bereft numbers like "Empty Hearts" or the I-feel-dead-without-you ballad, "Ghost In This House."

"I always say, `If it makes you feel [bad], then we should probably do it,' " she says, and giggles happily.

Sad songs didn't always bring her down, though. When she was younger -- back before she really began paying attention to the lyrics -- she didn't "get" the sad songs at all. "I'd say, `Oh, that's really pretty,' " she says, laughing at how clueless she must have seemed.

"But I think everybody has experienced some kind of nastiness, no matter how old they are, and can relate [to sad songs]," she says. "And even if they can't relate, when a song is written so well -- such as `Ghost In This House' -- boy, you can sure imagine what it's like and just feel terrible."

Not being a songwriter herself, Krauss is forever on the lookout for material. She says she found two songs of the songs on "Forget About It" simply by looking for mournful titles on the back of CD covers. "You know, `Oooh, that looks terrible,' " she says cheerily. "So I would buy it and listen to it, and I was lucky that the words on those two really worked out."

Krauss is such a diligent song-searcher that she's able to maintain a backlog of song titles for future recording projects. "I've got enough stuff that I never have to scramble for tunes," she says. "I have a list on the fridge that's probably 4 years old, that I just write stuff on."

Still, just because she likes a song doesn't mean that she'll consider recording it. In fact, she says, "I listen to stuff that's completely not what I do."

Like what, you ask? "I love hard rock," she says. "I love AC/DC and Def Leppard and Bad Company -- stuff that makes you jump up and down. Stuff that makes you feel good, not feel bad."

Krauss sometimes daydreams about what it would be like to switch places with someone like AC/DC guitarist Angus Young. "I think, `Oh, if I could just be him for 24 hours!' What would that be like? Being that good would have to be very fine," she says. "I wouldn't be able to deal with myself. I'd have to stay inside."

So far, the closest she's come to being a big-time hard rocker was when she did a recording session with the reunited Bad Company.

"What a kick!" she says of being able to watch her idols at work. "It makes you feel so good. I didn't get over it for a long time."

Pub Date: 8/13/99

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