Telluride Bluegrass Festival – Of exes and Alison Krauss
There isn’t a single thing that I dislike about Alison Krauss. But if there was, it’s that she reminds me of my ex-girlfriend from high school.
There’s no physical resemblance, and there’s certainly no vocal or musical resemblance – Ms. Krauss is rather singular in these aspects. The connection between Alison Krauss and my ex-girlfriend – let’s call her “Connie,” or you can fill in names from your own checkered past of regrettable loves – the connection between them for me is that Connie is responsible for introducing me to the music of Alison Krauss.
You’d think that growing up in East Tennessee I would have been well acquainted with country music, but I wasn’t. My parents only occasionally listened to Alabama or Kenny Rogers, which was nothing like what country music was like in the nineties. Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, the coming of Shania Twain – this was country music while I was in high school. I hated it. My musical tastes were good but limited: seventies blues-rock, which shared pretty much nothing with the nineties country-pop so prevalent on the radio back then. But Connie, she had moved to TN from Kansas, where, apparently, they took their country pop pretty seriously. So our tastes in music were as differently formed as our ego boundaries: in her car, country; in mine, classic rock. (Raising Sand made me dizzy with its worlds-colliding connotations.)
And there was no negotiating. If we were near a TV, it was tuned to CMT, and if I tried to change it, she would pitch a fit. So I knew all of the country hits at the time. The more I found these songs getting caught in my head, the more surely I sank into a pit of self-loathing. But then one day, during another make-out session scored by CMT’s weekly Top Ten, a song came on that caused me literally to disengage Connie’s warm lips and sit up from the couch. It was “When You Say Nothing At All.” I was mesmerized by the soft acoustic instrumentation and angel-pure vocals. This wasn’t country music, was it? But Connie knew the song. “That’s an old country song,” she said, the late eighties being ancient history to us then. But neither of us had ever heard of this singer before.
Well, you couldn’t escape her in 1995. Along with “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” another beautifully crafted masterpiece of delicate acoustic fingerwork, there was a breath of fresh air in the country music landscape, and it was Alison Krauss and Union Station. It was the only thing on CMT I could stand. In February of 1996, I discovered that Union Station was going to be in concert in Knoxville. For Valentine’s Day, I surprised Connie with two tickets, and we drove two hours to the elegantly historic Tennessee Theatre. It was the first of hundreds of shows I would see there, and perhaps the stately setting helped me to fall so completely in love with the music I heard that night. This was before the Jerry Douglas days, when Adam Steffey played mandolin. They played a few of their soft newgrass-folk-styled tunes, but it was mostly straight-ahead, toe-tapping, hardcore bluegrass. Connie didn’t care much for that. She wanted steel guitars, polished back-up vocals, and slick production values. The twangy vocals, the gospel tunes, the banjo – banjo! in country music!… It was too much for her.
But I was born again. I had heard of bluegrass and always dismissed it outright as silly hillbilly music. But there was nothing silly about what I was hearing. It was fast and furious, and those boys played their instruments with a speed that would rival anything Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page could reproduce. It was fun and heartfelt, and for the first time I noticed my soul connecting to the earthy hills I had grown up in, calling me out of the suburban neighborhood and into the mountains, where my ancestors had worked and farmed. The music was nothing if not pure. And this is what cracked my hardened resistance to country music. How delighted I was to be washed in the blood of purity! That stuff they played on CMT was fake! That wasn’t country music! This was the real thing, mountain music, pure as the spring streams in the Smokies of old. I’d never heard stringed instruments played with such clarity and poise, except maybe at the symphony, and those musicians never had nearly as much fun.
And that voice. Like a pitch-perfect whisper, I could close my eyes and it was as if she were singing only for me. When she sang I held my breath because I didn’t want the sound of it to muddy the holiness I was hearing. It made my lungs seize in my chest. It was so beautiful I almost couldn’t stand it. The very last song they played was “There Is A Reason,” a gospel song so simple and lovely that it made me weep. (I wiped the tears away before Connie could see, she would have laughed at me.) The next year, I was delighted to see that “There Is A Reason” was on their new release, So Long So Wrong. I bought the album and took it home to my parents and played “There Is A Reason” for them, and they wept, too. If you think my family is just a weepy bunch, then you haven’t heard this song.
I’ve seen Alison Krauss in concert nearly a dozen times. Most of those times were in the Tennessee Theatre, which has become a dear old friend of mine. I’ve seen her at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville, and I’ve seen her in a few coliseums on those traveling revue-type shows that followed O Brother and Cold Mountain. When I saw her at MerleFest with Tony Rice, you’d have thought Jesus and John Lennon were sharing a double bill. For the love, I even saw her at Dollywood once, waiting in line behind a rowdy bunch of rednecks soaking wet from riding the log flume. But it doesn’t matter; every time I hear her silver brooked voice flowing out of her, I’m transported to a place where my head can let my heart wander off and play.
Things with Connie ended shortly after that concert. We went off to college, and that was just the break I was looking for. The two years I spent with her weren’t my happiest. She was manipulative, emotionally needy, and cripplingly smothering. She’d cry if I didn’t smile at the right times and then she’d shut me out until I begged for forgiveness. Breaking up with her elicited a frenzy of self-pitying tears, and she condemned me with the venom reserved for someone who enjoys kicking puppies. I’m not one to trust whole-heartedly in the kind of providential theology expressed in “There Is A Reason.” I believe a lot of things just happen in this world with no explanation or meaning at all. But after the years of petty drama I endured with Connie, I can say there may have been a good reason I dated her. I discovered the music of Alison Krauss, and that is absolutely worth every moment of adolescent angst I suffered with Connie. Whenever I hear Alison Krauss sing, whenever that pure angelic voice fills my ears, I think of my ex-girlfriend and secretly thank her.