Alison Krauss is celebrating her 50th birthday on July 23, 2021. That’s a perfect reason for Outsider to celebrate the bluegrass and country music great. Actually, Alison rocks, too (just listen to her 2007 collaborative album with Robert Plant, Raising Sand).
The virtuosic fiddle player—with a stunning voice to match—has been a musical force since she picked up the fiddle for the first time as a five-year-old. By age 11, she was the Illinois State Fiddle Champion. A record deal with Rounder Records followed a few years later, and she released Too Late to Cry in 1987. While Alison has never been a darling of country radio—sans one solo Top 5 hit (we’ll get to that)—she’s been a showstopper at award shows. Her trophy case is packed, to say the least.
In 1991, Alison won her first Grammy Award—and she never stopped. Now, Alison has 27 Grammy Awards. That’s fourth on the All-Time List, behind conductor Georg Solti (31), Beyonce (28), and Quincy Jones (28). Alison’s plethora of Grammy Awards pair nicely with more than a dozen International Bluegrass Music Awards, nine CMA Awards, two Dove Awards, and more. In fact, in 1995, Alison took the country music world by storm by winning four CMA Awards: Female Vocalist of the Year, Horizon Award (new artist), Vocal Event of the Year (“Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart” with Shenandoah), and Single of the Year (“When You Say Nothing at All”).
We tasked Outsider‘s Wes Blankenship, Clayton Edwards, and Jim Casey to wax poetic about their favorite songs from Alison’s catalog.
‘Down To The River To Pray’
Alison Krauss brought “Down to the River to Pray” into the mainstream* conscience on the soundtrack to 2000s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (*no pun intended here, but I like it).
I knew it was an old hymn before that, but after researching the origins, no one seems to know exactly where it started. Some think the melody may have been a Native American tribal song before its Christian-lyrics adaptation.
The earliest publication of the tune is credited to George H. Allan in Slave Songs of the United States in 1867. My lineage has its deepest roots in Appalachia. The words have been sung and are still alive there, as well. My point is: I’m grateful that someone put this wonderful song out into the universe. And I’m glad that Alison’s version exists, too. Because no matter who sings it, I can’t help but feel a deep, steady, reverential pull toward something that is bigger than any one group in this country’s history.
Krauss honors it out of the gate with her tender, yet moving, a capella rendition. Listening to this song just puts you at ease. Kind of like you’re in a peaceful old river. And everyone you care about is there with you.
Come on, y’all. Sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers. No matter who you are. Let’s go down to the river.
‘Killing The Blues’
Alison Krauss and Robert Plant teamed up back in 2007 to create Raising Sand. That album proved that opposites don’t just attract, they can come together to create something that you never knew you needed. And you do need it.
On “Killing the Blues,” Krauss and Plant’s voices curl around one another like smoke rising off of a smoldering ember. Their vocals combine with the lyrics and sparse arrangement to paint an abstract picture of loss and heartache.
They sing together, but Alison’s voice really stands out. Years of singing bluegrass forged her voice into the perfect instrument to convey pain and sorrow. “Killing the Blues” shows that it doesn’t matter who she’s with, Krauss is a master of the high lonesome sound.
‘When You Say Nothing At All’
I’ll keep this simple. Don’t cover Keith Whitley songs. There’s nothing to gain. And it’s impossible to match Whitley’s vocal prowess. He’s a legend. He’s a legend. I needed to say that twice.
If your name is Alison Krauss, forget everything you just read.
Keith scored a No. 1 hit with “When You Say Nothing at All” in December 1988, five months before he died in May 1989. Alison’s version, which was featured on 1994’s Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album, reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
Now, I dare you to pick your favorite version. I toggle between ’em. Keith is one of my all-time favorites, but dare I say Alison takes the W? For Alison’s birthday, I dare, I dare. So vocally pure. Ethereal. It’s just stunning, and the backing by Union Station is perfection.