Bluegrass music superstar Alison Krauss

The 26-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter discusses what she feels has recently attracted artists to bluegrass and performs music from her new CD, “Paper Airplane.”

Since becoming a music business pro at age 14, when she signed with Rounder Records as a fiddler, Alison Krauss has become the most recognized face in contemporary bluegrass. Not only has she helped expose the genre to a new audience, but she’s also earned a record-breaking 26 Grammys—as a solo artist and part of a duet, with her renowned backup band Union Station and as a record producer. She’s made multiple guest appearances on other records and contributed to numerous film soundtracks. Krauss’ most recent album, “Paper Airplane,” is her first of all-new recordings with Union Station since 04.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Alison Krauss to this program. Her 26th – you heard me right – her 26th Grammy Awards are the most for any female artist in all of music history, six alone for her acclaimed project in 2007, that wonderful collaboration with Robert Plant.

Her latest CD is called “Paper Airplane” [technical difficulty]. She’ll be joined by her band and a couple of special guests, but first here now some of the video for the title track, “Paper Airplane.”


Tavis: Alison, good to have you on the program.

Alison Krauss: Thank you very much.

Tavis: I’ve been dying to ask you this. What is it about bluegrass that everybody wants to get a piece of these days? In this very chair just a few weeks ago, my friend Yo-Yo Ma was here. You know, he has a project out and got some bluegrass sensibilities on it.

But there are a number of artists, Yo-Yo and others, who are trying to get some of this bluegrass thing. What’s happening that’s like a magnet attracting people to at least try their hand at it?

Krauss: I think there’s a couple things. I think that the musicianship in bluegrass music is stellar when you see other folks who are with us today, Sam Bush and Jerry and Ron and Dan and Barry.

They’re so proficient on their instruments and improvisation is celebrated like crazy in bluegrass music. But for me, what I think the real draw is, is the message which is a very simplistic message.

What I mean by that, it’s when days were simpler and you always loved the girl next door, home was the best place to be and you never wanted to leave it. That’s really the message of the music that I am so drawn to.

Tavis: You think Americans are longing for a sense of that, given all the complexities of our lives these days?

Krauss: Yeah, I do. I think it never leaves us. I think it’s just a basic human desire, that simplistic life.

Tavis: Tell me about “Paper Airplane.” How did you approach this one with all the records behind you? What makes this one uniquely different from the others?

Krauss: Well, you know, I think because we’ve been together for as many years as we have, we all travel and do other things, so when we come back together, you’ve grown together. We started as teenagers and every place you go, you bring that experience back here whether it’s in your work life, your music or your personal. It always shows up in your recordings.

I love to see this band grow together and change. So for me, every record we make is like the first one and like the last one. It has its own stand and it really represents a piece of time for all of us. We approached it differently.

I don’t know if we approached it differently because I don’t think that we approach any of them the same other than we just follow what we feel like we have to record. I won’t be satisfied ’til I get to say the words. That’s the only recipe that seems to come up over and over again with recording.

Tavis: You started to hit on it a moment ago. Tell me about the importance to you of lyrical content, to your point about being able to say the words. Tell me about lyrical content and where that ranks or rates for you with regard to the whole process.

Krauss: It’s everything to me. You know, just practically, I’m much better at fixing or changing a melody to suit me than I would a lyric. But for me, everything is lyric. It has to be true for me to say it.

Any time that I’ve recorded something because it was catchy or clever or something like that, I’ve always regretted it. It never lasts for me when I sing it. But when it is true for me, it never gets old. You know, things we recorded 25 years ago, I still can feel better after I’ve sung it.

Tavis: Since you went there, I’m gonna go there. Since you went there, I’m gonna follow you. I recognize it takes a bit of courage to do this, but I’m sure you’re up to the task.

Since you mentioned when you’ve made mistakes in your career, when you’ve done certain things, you regretted it, it’s so much easier these days to focus on all your success because you’ve had so much of it and are still having so much success.

When you look back on your career, though, and you think of a couple mistakes that you made, things that you might have done differently, is there one or two that you might share with me? Things that you wish you had done differently in this career?

Again, you’re so successful these days; one can’t imagine that Allison Krauss ever made mistakes or wishes she could do something over again musically.

Krauss: Musically, yeah. I mean, if there’s a lyric that I really didn’t connect to enough, it’s a mistake because it’s not true.

I think, you know, life is too short to have anything come out of your mouth that isn’t true especially when this is how you express that part of yourself is through singing, or musically. It’s always a mistake and it always makes my stomach turn. But, you know, you think you’re gonna deal with it better later, but you never do.

But as far as big mistakes, no. This whole thing has been a surprise to me in the first place, so I don’t have a lot of regret because I didn’t have a lot of expectation other than I wanted to be satisfied musically.

So I don’t have a lot of regret that I go, oh, I should have done this or I shouldn’t have done this. It’s all been a surprise really.

Tavis: You say it’s been a big surprise in what way? Why has this success caught you by such surprise?

Krauss: I thought, you know, this would be something I’d get to enjoy on the weekends. You know, it’s really exciting. Sam Bush, who’s playing the mandolin with us. I saw him play with his band, New Grass Revival, at this big concert in Louisville, Kentucky about 26 years ago.

You know, I knew every word to what he was singing and we watched him like he was the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen [laugh]. I thought no one will ever know our words to things. I just never thought I’d get to do this for a living.

I just never thought it would happen, so I was gonna be a choir director. I’ve loved the idea of picking songs and working on harmonies. I was in a choir as a kid and I love that process, the way the director would get everybody to sing alike and sing their vowels alike. I loved that part of it and I just never thought this would happen.

So when I was about 19 or 20 and nobody else had another job, we might have been traveling in a ’77 van with plaid insides, but we realized that we could actually do it for a living.

Tavis: So what’s it feel like, then, all these years later to be on stage and to look out at an audience and you see them and you hear them, to your earlier point, singing your lyrics?

Krauss: Yeah, it’s amazing. I look out there. We just got back from overseas and we see it over there. I just go, boy, that’s really amazing. And to know that you’re doing what you feel led to do and people respond to that, I really think that’s the whole thing, when people respond to truth, period.

I don’t know how much of it even has to do with the sound of your voice. I just think it’s when you believe it, people react to it. I think that’s the core of it. People respond to truth in other people. It’s something you can’t shy away from.

Tavis: I’ve always believed that what comes from the heart reaches the heart in people, and people do get that. I think you’re right about that. What’s the trick – maybe trick’s the wrong word – but what’s the trick to keeping a band together this long?

I mean, history is replete with bands that stay together for a while and then they split. There are a few that are still together after all these years, but this isn’t the easiest thing to do to keep a band together this long.

Krauss: Yeah. I feel like we must have had some sort of blessing on us, you know, that was outside of us being able to control ourselves really. I mean, those are very big personalities in there, all of them.

I think the main thing that I think about is you have to let people know how valuable they are, whatever that means. You know, however you see that, that needs to be put across. I know that’s very important. Then, you know, you have to respect peoples’ differences and respect their eccentricities. That’s just the way it is.

You know, you don’t have to understand everything. You just have to accept it and the commitment to the band is bigger than any personality differences. You know, personality differences really are nothing.

Tavis: If this didn’t go on for another 20 or 30 years, that is to say, the band Union Station, the reason for going your separate ways would be what, if it didn’t last forever? Or can you not even fathom that?

Krauss: Well, I would hope that’s not the case. I’m very proud of what we’ve done together. When I see myself, it is always in this situation with them.

Tavis: The flip side of that question is what’s the best part, the blessing, of playing with the same guys year in and year out?

Krauss: Well, you know, I don’t – boy, there are many blessings with it, but this is how I feel like I’m really myself is with them. You know, when I hear music that I think that we can do as a band, it’s because I hear it with them. And the fact that I am a part of this, I think that any other person in there, it wouldn’t be the same.

Tavis: Let me shift gears a little bit. When you look back on – it’s impossible these days and I suspect this will be the case for the rest of your life, so get used to it. Any good interviewer, any decent interviewer, can’t have a conversation with you without talking about the Robert Plant project because the impact of that was and still is so monumental.

I went back doing some research and I was tickled by the number of people who were skeptical when the word got out that you all were working on this project.

Krauss: Oh, well, we were skeptical too.

Tavis: You were too [laugh]? I didn’t see you quoted in those articles. “I’m skeptical too.”

Krauss: Oh, we were too.

Tavis: Tell me more, yeah.

Krauss: No, we said let’s give it three days, you know. He goes, “If it doesn’t work, then we’ll say goodbye and we’ll see you next time.” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s great.” So we went in for the three days and we really had a great time.

The point was to really set our own tastes aside because it couldn’t have – you know, I said, “Well, I don’t want to produce it” and he said, “I don’t want to produce it,” so we called T Bone Burnett.

Tavis: Oh, yeah, not a bad call [laugh].

Krauss: No, no. It worked out great and we really put our own tastes aside because we knew it had to be something other than our control issues, so that’s what we did. You know, I think it turned out very moody and it had a personality and, you know, at the end, we were going “Okay.” But we enjoyed it. The company was very fun. We had a great time. He’s a lovely person.

Tavis: When you say you were skeptical, you were skeptical musically of the collaboration or you were skeptical of something beyond that or other than that?

Krauss: No, just musically. We thought what are we gonna do? He says, “Oh, I’ve never sung harmony before. You know, this’ll be fun. It’s a duet record, but it’s not all duets.” It was really about kind of the collaboration together, whether or not we were singing at the same time even.

But I thought it had a real identity, the record did, and the surprise was fun to see the two of us and contrasts in people. That’s a very romantic thing and I think, because of that contrast, it really worked.

Tavis: So just take me inside the studio. I’m a music lover, obviously, so I’m curious about this. So I get it now that you’ve explained it. I get your skepticism going into it musically. So like what happens in the studio? When in the process did you know, oh, this can work? This can work?

Krauss: Oh, probably the second song. I mean, the band, T Bone. One of the things that’s really beautiful about him is he’s such a great caster and he always gets huge personalities in the room and has a band that he uses pretty steadily on his recordings and they all have such identities.

When we got together, it sounded like nothing else that we’d worked on and we knew it was interesting. We were along kind of for the ride.

Tavis: By my count, I’ve actually lost count now, but at least five times in this conversation, you’ve used the word identity which leads me to ask how you would describe your own identity at this point in your life.

I ask that because once you have so many records and so many Grammy Awards, you tend to be defined by your success. You are defined by writers and interviewers and others. But since you’ve used that word so many times, it keeps striking me every time you say it. How would you define your own identity at this point in your life and career?

Krauss: Oh, boy. I guess the closest thing I could come to defining an identity about myself would be, I guess, in the material that I choose to sing. There’s a couple tunes on here. One is, of course, “Paper Airplane.” Another one is called “Dimming of the Day.”

I think that what I choose to sing are the words that a woman would say at her very last bit of being able to explain herself in lost love.

You know, women, when you think of what do they have, they have pride. That’s how they show strength and they’re cool and they don’t show emotion. That’s the only way you can really show strength and still be respected in the case of losing love.

I think that the lyrics that I choose are that step below where you actually do speak about what those things are and the loss and the pain of that without the pride. I think those are the things I choose.

Tavis: This is a simple point to make, but I make it because I am always struck by this reality, which is that, for songwriters, the notion of love, the concept of love, is inexhaustible for writers.

Every year, every month, every day, it seems somebody’s putting out a record about love. It is the most inexhaustible subject for songwriting, I think, in the history of the world.

Krauss: Because it’s inexplicable, yeah. I think everybody’s trying to explain it.

Tavis: [Laugh] Now I finally figured out why that is because there ain’t anybody figured it out yet [laugh]. How to explain it, that is, yeah.

When you guys went in to doing “Paper Airplane,” was the content selected prior to or these 11 songs, did that happen organically in the process?

Krauss: Well, it had been a while since we recorded and I’m always collecting things. I have bins and bins and bins of things. We hadn’t recorded together as a band, a whole new band record, for about six years at that point.

I was very nervous and I’d just come off of the record with Robert where both of us had kept our opinions to ourselves and it was kind of hard to get back into that mode. I was having migraine headaches a lot and I had a real hard time judging if I thought something worked or not.

You know, when you’re in the studio, you have a very black and white feeling about what you hear. Oh, it’s either great or you hate it, you know, and both answers are perfect because, if it doesn’t work, you know you won’t go back there. I wasn’t feeling well, so it was real hard for me to judge, so we had to take a break.

We got together and I said, “I don’t think we’ve got everything we need” after we’d been in the studio a couple of weeks. Everybody said, “Let’s take a break” and I came back with “Paper Airplane,” “Dimming of the Day,” I think about five new ones, and then we felt like we had it, yeah.

Tavis: I call that a comeback.

Krauss: It was a comeback.

Tavis: Yeah, that’s a serious comeback when you come back with “Dimming of the Day,” you come back with “Paper Airplane.” That’s a nice comeback, Alison. How do you process these 26 Grammy Awards? I can’t wrap my brain around that. Quincy Jones is a friend of mine. He’s been on this show many times. Whenever I go to Q’s house – I’ve been there a gazillion times.

Whenever I go, I walk in and give Q a hug and a kiss and I go to the same place in his house I go to all the time, which is a room that he had built in the round and all these Grammy Awards that Quincy has are around. I sit there and I count them all the time to make sure they’re still there, then I go through and read them again because I want to see what song it was for.

But it’s mind-boggling to walk into a room to see, you know, that many Grammy Awards. How do you, at this point in your career, process 26 and counting, since you’re nominated this year?

Krauss: Well, you don’t do a lot of processing. You wonder what happened. There must have been some mistake in there. You know, you work on a record and it’s like the only one you’re ever gonna make. To be recognized at all and someone saying, “Hey, nice job” is pretty great.

I don’t look back and I don’t look too far ahead because it’s really about this span of time. So I don’t spend too much time thinking about the recording, you know. If it’s awful, well, we can’t deal with it, or if it’s satisfactory, then we’re moving on.

Tavis: So this may be a silly question. Not that I’ve been invited to your house, but if I were to break into your house – not that I’d do that either – but where would I find the Grammy Awards? Where are they?

Krauss: Well, some of them are scattered. I don’t keep a lot of work stuff out because, you know, I have a son and I keep it about him at home.

Tavis: I’d have to go in search of them then.

Krauss: You might have to do a little searching.

Tavis: All right, now I know where to look when I come by. Her name, of course, Alison Krauss. Her band, as you well know, Union Station. The new project out this year, of course, called “Paper Airplane” and we tried a couple of times to get Alison on the program earlier this year and, for various reasons, we couldn’t make the dates work. Anyway, that happens in television.

But we were determined and, thankfully, so was her team, to make sure that his visit did in fact happen before the year closed. So I’m delighted to have had the chance to speak with her and now more delighted to hear Alison and her band, so stay with us.

The latest disc from Alison Krauss is called “Paper Airplane” joined by her band, Union Station, featuring Jerry Douglas and special guest, Sam Bush. Here she is performing “My Love Follows You Where You Go.” Enjoy,


Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: January 10, 2012 at 1:11 pm