The route taken by bluegrass over the years has been straight and narrow, just like the path Alison Krauss followed at the Country Music Association Awards last October while strolling to the podium to pick up one, two, three — why stop now? — four different honors. But the 24-year-old leader of Union Station earned her prizes by adding a pop-rock twist to her versions of traditional standards. Her last album, Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection, is made up of songs culled from Krauss’ previous records for the Rounder label, as well as bluegrass-style covers of tunes by Bad Company and the Beatles. The album has gone platinum, and it has made a whole new audience familiar with bluegrass, putting Krauss and her band in the mainstream spotlight.
You and your brother Viktor — a member of Lyle Lovett’s band — have made home recordings of heavy-metal tunes for kicks in the past. Have you done any new ones lately?
Well, Viktor got me an amplifier for my birthday, and Gary Paczosa, our engineer, got me a Danelectro guitar, so my brother and I sit around and play AC/DC songs in the living room with the amps turned up as loud as they will go. We walk outside with the guitars and play “Highway to Hell.” It’s pretty fun, except Vik’s good and I suck.
Are there now audience members who show up at shows because of your hit “When You Say Nothing at All” and are turned on by the more orthodox bluegrass stuff?
I notice that there are more people, but I don’t really notice that anyone is waiting for something — which is great, because we feared that. We feel that the other stuff we do is just as important as the newer songs.
Are the songs from your recent studio sessions closer to the modern sound of “Now That I’ve Found You”?
I think so, but they’re more far-out songs. I feel like we’ve grown into what we’re going to sound like.
You and your band have changed some perceptions about what bluegrass can be and what country is.
I think whatever we have slipped by somebody is great. [Laughs] If they call it country, that’s cool.
Have you warmed up to making videos?
If I had a stomach like Shania Twain, I might be a little more confident.
You’ve said that in the past you felt like a child singing adult songs, and it’s only been recently that you could accurately convey the emotions in songs like “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You.”
Well, I still don’t feel that I’m quite there yet. I listened to Merle Haggard last night. Talk about a mash….
Yeah, he mashed me down. Unbelievable. I tell you, I can’t believe anybody is like that. When I was listening to that, I just about crapped myself. It’s incredible.
Because your voice is so clean, people can’t believe you smoke cigarettes.
I used to do it because everybody would get so mad. Me and my friend used to say, “Man, it’s so gross when women smoke — let’s smoke.” So we’d smoke and play the fiddle outside. We’d get the tape recorder out and say [puts on a thick Southern accent], “Here’s a song about my old boyfriend. This is one called ‘He Smelled Bad.’ ” We’d just be nasty. There’s a tape somewhere — I need to find it. I hear that stuff about which band members smoke cigarettes is on the Internet. I don’t do it much, and I sure don’t recommend smoking to anyone.
Which bluegrass records would you nudge a beginner toward?
J.D. Crowe and the New South, on Rounder, the first one. Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Gospel, on Rebel. Oh, boy, I don’t know what else.
You’re producing your friends the Cox Family. Are you getting happier with arranging and producing?
Well, I like what we come up with. There was an article — I forget which magazine — that said my arrangements sound like hymns. I think [the writer] was slamming us, but I don’t take it as a slam.
Do you remember the fiddle contests you used to play in?
Yeah, I had a really good time. If I hadn’t entered contests, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to play. That’s what kept me going. It’s a place to try to perfect what you do. I learned a lot by listening to the records and learning what the fiddle players did. You use that every day.
Your singing has been stressed over the fiddling of late.
Well, I don’t think I’m progressing so much [fiddle-wise]. It’s slack sometimes. I’ve played on recording sessions where I’ve had to stretch out; it made me think, “Oh, I don’t suck as bad as I thought — that’s nice.” But the band has so many other things to do that we don’t sit around and pick a lot any more. And that will make you come to a halt pretty quick.
I heard the guys in the band still make fun of your voice.
Want to hear ’em? Hey guys, it’s Rolling Stone, and they want to know if you make fun of my voice. [A chorus of Alvin and the Chipmunks voices erupts.]
What’s with the scandal-sheet reports of you being entwined with Lyle Lovett?
I think it’s funny. I mean, where did that come from? [My friends and I] started in with the stupid stuff like “We make out one time, and look what they turn it into.” So it was funny. But what was even funnier was they said I was helping him get over his broken heart. Like, yeah, sure, he forgot all about Julia Roberts when he and I were hanging out. Right.
Has there been a day yet when you’ve felt like chucking your newfound popularity in the trash can?
Well, you don’t notice it that much when you’re in the middle of it. Nothing has really changed with us — we’re on the road so much, we don’t notice a difference. But I feel that I should probably shower before I go out of the house now. A shower would be a good idea.