Though she’s won the third most awards in GRAMMY history, Alison Krauss isn't resting on her laurels or worrying about whether she'll break any records. That kind of thing could change her creative flow, and she's all about the work. "It could infect what I would want to do next, and I have to be very natural," she says from her Nashville home. For a legend of the country and bluegrass world, expecting anything else would be sacrilege.
That kind of golden focus brought Krauss to one of the apexes of Recording Academy history. At the 51st GRAMMY Awards, her collaborative album with Robert Plant, Raising Sand, won Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album, Record of the Year for "Please Read The Letter," Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for "Rich Woman," and Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for "Killing the Blues." That armful of awards made Krauss the sixth female artist to win five GRAMMYs in a single night—the others being Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, and Lauryn Hill.
Even after winning a GRAMMY or receiving a compliment from a gushing fan, it's telling that Krauss' first instinct is to call her parents. The roots of her work are innately threaded through generations of nostalgia and familial warmth, an energy that hums through any Krauss recording. Raising Sand showcases that vibrance perfectly, especially as it so sweetly connects Krauss' instincts together with those of Plant's and producer T Bone Burnett’s. But in the midst of those legendary voices, Krauss' radiates, bringing everything together in an arc of amber affection.
In the heart of Women's History Month, Krauss spoke with the Recording Academy about connecting to the spirit of bluegrass through memory, working with Robert Plant, and the night she won five GRAMMYs.
What are you working on at the moment?
I've got some tracks that I'm finishing, and we're deciding whether we're going to use them for a project in 2020, depending on how we feel about the collection! I also have some vocals to do on other projects that I haven't got through yet. I don't know if it's allergies or what, but I caught the flu a few months ago and my throat’s still not clean enough to record something that will be around forever. I'm just going to keep on waiting a little bit.
Absolutely, if you strain your voice, that's going to be incredibly harmful in the long-term. You really do sound so natural on your records, so ensuring you don’t have to force that is important.
Whenever I've compromised my voice, I just never forget. At least for me, if I don’t feel absolutely 100% certain I’m ready, it's always going to feel unfinished and I’ll just want to hide under the table every time I hear it.
How do you find inspiration in Nashville?
I have to be by myself, and I have to see and listen to the things that inspired me as a kid. The themes of bluegrass and traditional music come from a few generations ago, and the romanticism with that kind of music comes from longing for the past. I like going to museums. I like going driving, too, which reminds me of riding around in the car as a little kid. I can't necessarily even set the mood, it just has to come when it comes. But the busier that I've gotten, just with normal life, the less those times show up. As a kid you're nurturing whatever is first on your list. At a certain point, all I thought about was music. But as you get older, your heart is tugged in other places.
That’s especially difficult because as a musician, you're almost required to create. You're very focused on understanding that you need to compartmentalize different versions of your life.
I cannot force my feelings, and I can’t compromise. So going into the studio, if I'm distracted and I have something pulling on my mind, I don't want to end up with a fake version of myself.
I remember my father driving me to a fiddle contest in Arkansas from Illinois when I was 11. I had an album by Tony Rice that I was obsessed with; it was called Cold on the Shoulder. We had a cassette player and he let me play that thing 11 hours in a row. He never asked me to switch it up or to take a break. And then he let me do that on the way home too. He listened to the same album for 22 hours, because he knew for whatever reason that it mattered. I think about how much you are becoming who you are when you're immersed, when you're soaking in something like that. When my son started to have an interest in music, I did exactly the same thing. The CD player was his because I didn’t want to interrupt that process.
There's a reason everybody responds to music: it makes them feel like who they are. When they listen to something from when they were kids, they feel like who they were then. It's too big to interrupt. On that drive, my father knew something was happening, and he allowed it. That freedom to find yourself is really big.
How has your connection to country and bluegrass music changed as you've gotten more experience in the industry and worked with more people? What about that type of music continues to speak to your musical spirit now?
I continue to be someone that longs for the values of bluegrass—the words to those songs and the way that they're written. It's a poetic style and it's a timeless kind of music. The subject matters are home, family, land, and God, and it's just incredibly beautiful and poetic. It's very romantic in its simplicity. Most people who grew up in that music all say they think they were born in the wrong era. Things may have changed over the years, but the poetic kind of abstractness of what we've recorded through the years never lost that message—not to me. Plus, I have a lot of the things that my mother grew up with her house, and we connected on bluegrass, so I think there's a real personal connection to that time. You're romanticizing what makes those people from two generations ago that you’re seeing photos of. Is it what they experienced or is it what they daydreamed about? Young people have plenty of free space to daydream, when you’re figuring out who you are. My whole musical life started looking out the window at cornfields while we drove around. I think of all the teeny people today on their phones, taking that daydream time and breaking it up. And I think, "Gosh, those future musicians don’t get to have that daydream time." For me that was incredibly valuable, that quiet time.
A lot of artists say, “I'm not nostalgic, I don't want to turn back."
Oh, no! I don't want to turn back either—I don't want to turn back on me. You can't recreate who you are. You need to stay honest, or it just doesn't work. People respond to the truth in something. I want to listen to someone where I feel like I'm getting who they are. You've got to be a vessel for your work.
That said, you have to be connected to important moments in your past—like, for example, that life-changing evening when you won five GRAMMY awards! When you started making music, were awards close to your radar?
No, no, no. I didn't even think I'd get to do this for a living. Even though I was passionate and obsessed, I just didn't even think like that. I was thinking about Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley, and Larry Sparks. I was obsessed with those records. That was all I did, but I didn't think I would get to end up doing it. I didn't think I'd ever look in the audience and see people singing along with our songs. The first time I saw, I was blown away. [Laughs.]
It feels like a very private thing for you. Your passion comes from your family and your history.
It's true, though; there was some isolation. That kind of music in general was not accessible. If you made bluegrass, you were kind of in your own club. You couldn't find it on the radio. People traveled all over the country to get to be with other people who played that music, and they'd play like crazy—play in the parking lot, play in the lobby of the hotel. But it was a lot of fun. I have some really great, sweet memories of that time.
How did you feel going into the awards ceremony that night?
Well, Robert [Plant] is just so much fun, just silly and so sweet. He is such a great personality and person, and I had a lot of fun doing all that stuff with him. T Bone was funny, too. I know people liked the record and we had a great time. Really the funny thing with that album in the first place, when we got together, Robert was like, "Let's give it three days, and if it doesn't work and we don't like it, we can just move on." But T Bone said, "Oh, we'll record the full time."
I've always said that every record you make is like your last and your first. You'll never do another one and you've never made one. [Laughs.] It was like that for me, and I think it was that way for Robert too. That night was fun—but I was mostly concerned about my dress staying up. [Laughs.] I was stepping on it and getting really frustrated. And Robert was like, "Now watch it, because people will see you getting mad!"
That's such a miniscule thing that you forget might bother you, but when you are in public and you're about to win an award that becomes a big thing. Were you nervous?
Nervous isn't the word, but uncomfortable is a more natural word. [Laughs.] It was pretty surreal. We'd been on tour up until that point, and people would come in and say things, like, "Oh, the record's doing good." But it was still a surprise. It was just really sweet, the way it all happened. Robert is such a light, and he's one of those folks where you know exactly why that person has had an effect on so many people as he has. I just thought that he was just a great person. The first conversation that he and I had was about Ralph Stanley. He has such a knowledge of music, and both he and T Bone have incredible musical histories and that made for a great experience. I was really happy to get to have that natural musical experience.
He may have a really expansive career, but was there something that you brought that Robert had never experienced? It sounds like he wouldn't work with anyone if he isn't learning and growing as well, just like you.
Well, he'd never done harmony to that point. The kind of harmony that I grew up with is very consistent. You're doing a very stacked trio, and it's very consistent. Everybody knows where to come in, and the plan is to always come in at the same time. There's not a lot of improvising within that harmony. The high part may do some, but the lead stays straight on those choruses so that everybody has their part to showcase the trio. With Robert, his singing was always so free and changed all the time. It would be really funny for him to have to keep doing it the same way twice. But when we sang together, the more different we were, the more it worked. I just enjoyed my time with him and with T Bone.
By the time the evening was over, you'd joined the ranks of Alicia keys, Beyoncé, Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, and Lauryn Hill as women who have won five GRAMMYs in one night. Were you aware of the company that you joined in that moment?
Not at all—it's just a surprising life for me. I didn't even think I would do this for a living, let alone win awards like that. It makes me a bit uncomfortable because I don't see myself in that company. They are so strong.
Do you not see yourself though as that voice and that beacon in your industry?
I'd have to say I don't. But I am beyond touched that I would be recognized or have my name with those ladies. Those are very powerful women. When you were reading the list out, I was sinking in my chair. [Laughs.]
I'm sure any of those women would feel the same. It is a strange thing to suddenly be put in that position; you put yourself there through your work.
I don't reflect a lot on it, because I feel like if I were to pay attention to that, I feel like it would possibly affect the next thing I record. It could infect what I would want to do next, and I have to be very natural.
I'm sure a lot of women have come to you and either asked you for advice or just told you how inspiring you are.
I've had some incredible women say they were inspired, or had moments of inspiration by what we've done in the past, and I’m so grateful for that. I just think, "Really?" It’s a really humbling experience, and I'm so touched when somebody shares one of those moments. Even just talking about it is making me a little bit weepy. Those are the kinds of things I don't tell anybody about, but I'll call my mom and dad. It's really a beautiful thing to think your work might have inspired someone.
Beyond that night, you now stand as having won the third highest number of GRAMMYs in the Academy's history, which is just phenomenal. Are you hoping to catch up to Quincy Jones and the classical conductor Georg Solti?
I have experienced more than I could've ever dreamed of. It’s been a good plan to keep as much of that work process separate from thinking about the outcome or the results of it.