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music friday: alison krauss, “when you say nothing at all”

Last week, Alison Krauss turned 40. A child prodigy, she always convinced me she was about as old as, say, Anna Paquin. She was playing violin by the age of 5, and Wikipedia tells us she already had her own band when she was 10. She made her first recorded appearance at 14, and released her solo debut when she was 16. (She is often backed by Union Station, although her contract for a long time stipulated she alternate between Union Station albums and solo work, which seemed to matter more for the name on the cover than it did for the music.) Her fiddle playing may have been the hook that got people’s attention, but it was her voice of crystal that kept us around.

Her popularity grew, twice leaping forward. In 1995, she released Now That I’ve Found You, an anthology of her work to that date (it’s a sign of how early she started that her well-deserved collection came when she was only 24). It was a country hit, and it crossed over into pop. In the early 2000s, her work on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack raised her profile even more.

If there is a criticism to her later work, it’s that there is a consistency, a sameness to it. It’s not exactly a formula, though. And throughout her career, she has worked with other artists, which adds variety to her entire body of work. (This was obvious most recently in her successful partnership with Robert Plant.)

I’m thinking about Alison Krauss because of Pandora. I created a Pandora station for my wife that we listen to on weekend mornings. I worked obsessively on this station, and I have to say, a month might go by before a song comes on she doesn’t like. Pandora has some rule about the number of times you’ll hear a particular artist. But sometimes I think I should rename my wife’s station to “Alison Krauss.” I’m just guessing, but it seems like Pandora goes by the artist’s name when deciding how often they can be played. Well, Krauss records under her own name. She records as Alison Krauss and Union Station. She cut an album with Robert Plant. One album was by “Alison Krauss and the Cox Family.” On the Oh Brother soundtrack, she is listed three different ways, depending on who she is singing with.

The point is, in an hour of Pandora listening, we might hear Alison Krauss five times. And this is a good station, diverse in line with my wife’s taste. But Krauss’ work is spread around so that she can trick Pandora.

Finally, here’s a fact known to her fans, but perhaps surprising to those who haven’t fallen under her spell. Think of all the great female artists in recorded history. Aretha comes to mind, or maybe you like Barbra Streisand, or Diana Ross and the Supremes, or Patti Smith, or Pink. Well, Alison Krauss has won more Grammys than any of them. In fact, her 26 Grammys so far are more than any other female artist, ever.

“When You Say Nothing at All” was a bit of an anomaly when it was first released. Keith Whitley had recorded it in 1988, and took it to the top of the country charts. Whitley died young, and in 1994, Krauss and Union Station recorded a version of the song for a Keith Whitley tribute album. Radio stations picked up on it, and it was released as a single in early 1995, then included on the Now That I’ve Found You anthology. It was a hit, and won a CMA award for Single of the Year. I imagine she’s gotten a little tired of singing it over the years, but truth is, I’ve never heard any bad ones. She sang it on TV, she sang it in concerts, she sang it for her live CD/DVD, she sang it when I finally got around to seeing her in concert. And I’m going to listen to it again as I dig up the following YouTube versions (admittedly, they all sound pretty much the same, i.e. great, so there’s no reason to watch them all, other than to note when Krauss changed her hair color). Here’s the official video:

Here she is with the band on Austin City Limits … hair is blond, but she’s still downplaying the glamour:

This is from their live DVD, and is in HD. She talks at the end of this one:

And if you like those ghoulish tracks where “duets” are created between a dead person and a living one, here’s Krauss and Keith Whitley:

Finally, as a reward for anyone who actually made it this far, here’s a real old TV appearance with Krauss playing the fiddle: