IF ALISON Krauss were merely an 18-year-old fiddle champion, she would be an important sign that bluegrass will enjoy fresh blood and increased participation by women in the years ahead. If the Illinois teenager were merely a soprano singer as pure and affecting as Nanci Griffith, she would be one of the most promising talents in the country/bluegrass/folk field. But Krauss is not just a fiddle virtuoso and a brilliant singer; she has also assembled one of the most potent songwriting stables in acoustic American music and is thus in a better position to influence the field's future than anyone else.
The shape of that future can be glimpsed on Krauss's third album, "I've Got That Old Feeling." Producer Jerry Douglas has assembled an all-star band that includes himself on dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin and newcomer Alison Brown on banjo, but Krauss dominates the proceedings with her authoritative voice and fiddle. John Pennell, who wrote the best songs on Krauss's earlier albums, is back with three more songs that capture romantic heartbreak in vivid rural imagery and bluegrass melodies. Krauss has discovered two more songwriters, Sidney Cox and Nelson Mandrell, who write in the same style and with the same high standards.
The result is bluegrass that slows down enough to shift the emphasis from flashy, high-speed runs to heartfelt harmonies, from technical virtuosity to emotional expression. This is still bluegrass -- from the rural imagery of its lyrics to the traditional instrumentation -- but it's the bluegrass of the future.