Modest sales and media obscurity are the fate of most bluegrass musicians, but in 1995 Alison Krauss broke through those limitations. Her anthology, "Now That I've Found You: A Collection," may have been an acoustic recording on a small label but it became a double-platinum, top 20 album. That same year Krauss won her fourth and fifth Grammy Awards as well as four awards from the Country Music Association.
In the wake of that breakthrough, many music bizzers assumed she'd make the logical move and enter the country-pop mainstream. Record companies, managers and agents all came knocking on her door, promising fame and fortune. Krauss confounded them all by sticking with Rounder Records and devoting her next album, 1997's "So Long, So Wrong," to drummer-less, banjo-driven bluegrass.
"We talked to a lot of other record labels," she explains, "but the fact that we wanted to continue to play bluegrass was not interesting to them. Which is fine; that's not what those companies do. In retrospect, I'm so glad we didn't change labels.
"There's no guarantee that you will be rich and famous even if you try to be. Is it worth it to maybe have a chance at that and not be able to play what you want? I would definitely choose to not be rich and famous if we could play what we want and still like it 25 years later. I mean, just to play at all is so lucky. How many people get to travel around and play what they want? Not many."
This year, however, Krauss has confounded the music industry again. The 28-year-old singer and fiddler has finally released a non-bluegrass pop album, but it's not the kind of pop album anyone was expecting. "Forget About It" (Rounder) has little in common with the country-pop of Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood or even Patty Loveless. Instead Krauss has fashioned a song suite of lush, hushed chamber-pop reminiscent of Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" and Rosanne Cash's "Interiors." Krauss proves it's possible to go pop for artistic rather than commercial reasons.
"It wasn't intentional to make this record so pop," she says. "We just wanted to do the songs the way we thought they should be done. When we got these songs together, we realized they needed piano and drums and things outside our normal five-piece band, and we had a great time doing it. We've recorded with drums, piano and different instruments for years, but this time there were more of those songs.
"I read somewhere that we've finally sold out. That's so far from being true. We're not supposed to do songs that we feel like doing because we're afraid someone might say we're selling out? Our approach is no different than it was on `I've Got That Old Feeling'; we're still trying to do the songs the best way we can. If that means using different instruments, that's what we do. If we found songs that needed electric guitar and synthesizer and drum machines, we'd do it but it wouldn't be for the sake of making a pop record."
It's unlikely Krauss will be going techno anytime soon. Her soprano, an instrument of astonishing transparency, sounds most at home around acoustic instruments. On the new album, she sings so softly, so confidentially, that she creates the impression that she's revealing secrets she doesn't want anyone to overhear. Reinforcing that impression are chamber-like string arrangements that evoke the atmosphere of late-night, candle-flickering intimacy.
The CD booklet lists Krauss as playing "fiddle" on three songs and "strings" on eight others. A fiddle and a violin may be the same physical instrument, but the words represent very different ways of playing -- short, sawing strokes vs. long, flowing strokes. When she plays "fiddle" on a song such as "Could You Lie," her instrument seems to poke and prod. But when she plays "strings" on a song such as "Stay," her instrument seems to swoon.
"On the songs where I'm listed playing `strings,' I'm overdubbing a whole bunch of parts on violas and violins," Krauss says. "I didn't want to credit myself as a viola player, because I'm not. And I couldn't put fiddle down for the viola parts, because people would say that's no fiddle. So I called it `strings.'
"I loved playing them. My rule for doing string parts is they have to feel just as good when they show up as when they disappear. Your reaction shouldn't be, `That's so cool'; it should be, `Ah, that feels good.' "
Krauss's contract with Rounder calls for her to alternate solo albums with band albums. Thus, her 1987 debut, "Too Late To Cry" was credited to Alison Krauss; her 1989 follow-up, "Two Highways," to Alison Krauss & Union Station. "I've Got That Old Feeling" (1990) was a solo album; "Every Time You Say Goodbye" (1992) was a band album; "Now That I've Found You" (1995) was a solo project; "So Long So Wrong" (1997) was with the band, and "Forget About It" (1999) is a solo release.
"On a band record," she explains, "we make all the music with just the five of us; on a solo album, we bring in other players. On a band record, I share the lead vocals with the guys; on a solo record, I do all the singing. On a band record, the guys have veto power over the material, while on the solo records they don't.
"We love making both kinds of records. The guys love the solo records, because they get to play with other people. It's fun for me, because I get to use different instruments and different kinds of songs.
"But I also love making a band record, because I get to be part of the band. It's a more democratic situation, and I love hearing Dan [Tyminski] and Ron [Block] sing lead. It's fun because you're working with the same five instruments every time, and it's a challenge to make each song sound new with those same ingredients."
When Krauss brings Union Station to George Mason University Wednesday, she will bring along the group's newest member, dobro player Jerry Douglas. Douglas was a temporary fill-in when mandolinist Adam Steffey left to join the Isaacs two years ago.
"We said, `Let's call Jerry and see if he'll go out with us for the year,'" Krauss recalls. "We were so happy that he'd go out at all, because it seemed such a long shot. We had a great time with him and at the end of the year, the other guys told me, `Ask him if he'll keep going.' I said, `I'm not going to ask him. Why would he want to be in our band?' Finally I got my courage up and he said, `I was wondering when you were going to ask me.'
"He's such a huge musical personality that it changes how you sing and how you play. He's the greatest dobro player who has ever lived. I'll be listening to us during sound check, and I'll think it's a record, because it seems so funny that he'd be out on the road with us."
ALISON KRAUSS -- Appearing Wednesday at George Mason University. To hear a free Soundbite from Alison Krauss, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
CAPTION: Bluegrass star Alison Krauss ended up with a pop album by doing "the songs the way we thought they should be done."