Grammy Award-winner Alison Krauss is 7 years younger than I. I'll always remember that, because I was a roadie of sorts for her back in 1988. I was 23. And she, to my amazement, was 16.
Alison was one of six featured performers on a tour of American fiddle styles called "Masters of the Folk Violin." The three-week tour was produced by a Washington folk-arts group with which I had wrangled a spring internship.
Offstage, Krauss was pretty much what you'd expect for 16. She called herself "pizza-face" in the mirror when her chin broke out, and she fussed at her mom long-distance when she called home to get her homework assignments. But at night she'd step into the spotlight to play her fiddle and then, she was ageless.
Music seemed to bubble up from somewhere far beneath her feet, then course through her body and spray out of her fiddle. You could almost see it. She used her voice (soft and silky with an unexpected edge) in the same way: to channel a power that came from outside herself.
The other five fiddlers were all men: bluegrass legend Kenny Baker, Cape Breton fiddler Joe Cormier, jazz violinist Claude Williams, Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet and Irish virtuoso Seamus Connolly. They were quite taken with Krauss, who played in the Texas longbow style, not merely because she was young and female, but because she could play the hell out of her fiddle. Williams showed her a jazz lick offstage one night, which she tried to work into one of her numbers. He'd listen anxiously every night to see if she got it, and I can remember the thrill on his face the night she did.
At first, she shared hotel rooms with the only other female musician on the tour, a crotchety pianist from Detroit. But 10 days in, she couldn't take it anymore and asked to room with me instead. For years, I saved the little envelope that our room keys had come in at one hotel: At the top, in curly blue desk-clerk writing, it said "Krauss" and "Gems" (my name back then).
One night, as she sprawled on a hotel bed studying, I asked her how she had started fiddling. Her answer seemed pat at the time, though now that I'm a parent, it gives me pause. She told me that when she was around 5, her mother had signed her up for all sorts of activities: sports, dance, art, music lessons. She explained with a shrug, "This is what stuck."
Toward the end of the tour, I was treated to the up-close-and-personal jam session of a lifetime. We were at a hotel somewhere in Ohio as I recall. Her brother Viktor, a bass player, lived nearby and after the concert, she invited him to our room. He showed up with a gigantic standup bass and a few of his friends, also musicians. She made a pretense of not wanting to inconvenience me, and I made a pretense of considering for a moment that it might. But we all knew what was going on.
They packed themselves between the two double beds and the low, lacquered dresser, and went to it. Two-steps, reels and breakdowns flitted around the room and danced into my blissful ears. Sometime after midnight, with fiddle tunes weaving through my dreams, I finally started dozing. But I don't think the music stopped until long after. However good her concert may be on Friday night at the Landmark Theater, it'll never measure up to the one I heard at the foot of my bed that night in
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