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A Hit From Country's Kinfolk : Bluegrass's most prominent figure makes her way into country music's Top 10. Even Alison Krauss can't explain it.

March 25, 1995|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even though country music makes the occasional show of honoring its rural roots, bluegrass is about as welcome on its charts and radio stations as a delegation from Dogpatch at a Nashville society wedding.

So what are Alison Krauss & Union Station doing in the Top 10 of the country album chart this week?

"I don't know," says singer-violinist Krauss, 23, a former child prodigy who is now bluegrass's most prominent figure.

"It's a freak thing," she continues. "It's kinda ticklin' us all. We haven't had anything really chart before. At all . Isn't it funny though? We don't know what's goin' on. . . . The office said, 'Hey, it's charting,' and we're like, ' Huh ?' "

In her music, Krauss may present an image of taste and dignity, but in conversation she speaks with an animated twang and a freewheeling agenda.

"She's a real straight shooter," says Rounder Records co-owner Ken Irwin, who signed Krauss to his label a decade ago. "She definitely shoots from the hip. You don't have to wonder what she's thinking about. It's a lot of fun. Sometimes it's disarming."

Right now it's also a lot of work for the Cambridge, Mass.-based independent label, which has already sold 200,000 copies of Krauss' new retrospective collection, "Now That I've Found You." That's good enough not only for the country Top 10, but also No. 57 on the national pop chart.

Krauss, who brings her band to Ambassador Auditorium on Wednesday, is also all over country radio as guest singer with the group Shenandoah on the hit ballad "Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart." And her own "When You Say Nothing at All" is starting to move up the country singles chart.

It's a strange feeling for an artist who, despite years of acclaim and cult stardom, has always felt isolated from the heart of contemporary country.

"For sure, we're definitely not in the heart. We're in the left butt cheek of it." Krauss laughs. "Yeah, we're far away from the heart of whatever's goin' on."

Krauss, who now lives just outside Nashville, grew up in Champaign, Ill., where she started violin lessons at age 5. A few years later she was winning fiddle contests around the region. She was a member of a group called Classified Grass when she came to Rounder's attention.

She released her first album, "Too Late to Cry," in 1987 but she still wasn't sure about her career, attending the University of Illinois for a year and a half, with the intention of becoming a choir director.

But with 1990's "I've Got That Old Feeling," she started making a living from the music and made her commitment. There have since been three Grammys and a string of noteworthy collaborations with other artists. In 1993 she became the first bluegrass performer in 19 years to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry.

Rounder Records' Irwin attributes Krauss' current breakthrough to an interlocking set of factors. Among them: the label's new distribution system and expanded marketing and promotion staffs, the emergence of new radio formats such as "adult album alternative" and "Americana," the radio-friendly nature of some of the songs on the album, and her steadily growing visibility and stature.

But how does a performer who's all but oblivious to the commercial side of things, and wary of mass success, survive in the competitive music business?

"She has a fairly strong group of people around her," Irwin says. "She has a team--between management, record company, publicist--where people are pretty sensitive to what she's going to like and not like and try to shield her.

"She knows what she wants to do and largely how to do it. . . . With this record we're able to reach new markets, but we have to be real careful to do it in a way that would be in keeping with her desires."

Irwin is alluding to the principle that governs Krauss' approach.

"Just to be tasteful is the main thing," she says. "I read a review once that said our arrangements are like hymns. I guess that means underproduced or something. And that's fine with me. That means that nothing's sticking out. I don't want anything annoying.

"When I was playing a few years ago, I was the most annoying fiddle player you've ever heard in your life. I played so much crap all the time it was a joke. . . . I don't know what I was thinkin' about. I don't think it was to be showy. I just didn't know any better. I thought that more was better or something, and I was lost in space."

* Alison Krauss & Union Station play Wednesday at the Ambassador Auditorium, 300 W. Green St., Pasadena, 8 p.m. $25-$22. (818) 304-6161.

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