Alison Krauss's teenage obsessions: 'My spiked hair froze on the walk to school'

·6-min read

Tony Rice – Cold on the Shoulder

Growing up in Illinois, I didn’t have teenage angst. My parents encouraged my brother and I to speak our minds and I remember a lot of laughs. My brother’s band would come round at lunchtime and we were always playing music, and we were goofy. We weren’t into drugs or alcohol, so for anything I did, I was completely conscious [laughs]. I was a daydreamer, though, and was fascinated by things from when my grandparents were kids. That was the appeal of bluegrass. I was always going back in time and thinking about the olden days and what they looked like. You’d listen to the songs driving across the landscape and the landscape becomes part of your daydreaming.

When I was about 13, I was out of my mind for Cold on the Shoulder, an album by Tony Rice. I had it on cassette but, other than the tiny picture of him, I had nothing. So I’d imagine what he was like: the most heroic, toughest, kindest person. He’d do songs by Gordon Lightfoot, or Jimmie Rodgers’s Mule Skinner Blues, and totally change them. I loved Likes of Me, about being a roamer, but the stories and poetry in all those songs was amazing. By then, I wanted to do music but I didn’t know if it was possible, so I daydreamed about playing fiddle in Tony’s band. I got to see him play in about 1986 or 87 and there are pictures of me watching with my mouth open, in shock.

MTV

When MTV played pop videos, I could suddenly see what all the people I heard on the radio looked like. I always loved bluegrass and rock hand in hand, and I watched a lot of rock videos. I really liked Def Leppard’s Rock of Ages [featuring an owl, mild bondage and the band dressed as monks] and was trying to figure out what it meant. In Foolin’, the singer Joe Elliott is strapped to a pyramid, wearing tight white pants [laughs]. Van Halen’s Jump and Cameo’s You Make Me Work were also favourites, and then later on Whitney Houston. MTV influenced the way I dressed. I wasn’t a fashion person, although I did wear leg warmers for a while and I liked dark-brown eyeshadow. I spiked my hair up with mousse and Aqua Net hairspray. In winter, by the time I had walked to school, my hair was frozen.

The Color Purple

This was a huge film when I was 15 or 16. I thought it was the most amazing movie ever. I had gone to Indiana to stay with some friends of mine and watched it there on VHS – so 80s! The Whoopi Goldberg character was a similar age to me but I don’t know if I related to the film. It’s difficult to say what drew me to it but it was so beautiful to look at, she’s a hero in it and the story and the music are incredible. It’s emotional, dark, and so sad and intense that I can’t watch it now, but the end scene where she regains everything she lost is just incredible. Although it’s about race and injustice, and they all win in the end, at the core it’s about longing for something. Longing is the central theme in bluegrass songs: longing for home, love lost, the land, family … and the girl next door is the most beautiful girl in the world. It’s a beautiful yearning for the simplest things, and why those songs will still work 100 years from now.

Bluegrass festivals

My family went all over the north-east travelling to bluegrass festivals and they were always a blast. You would see people you didn’t see any place else, , but the same faces went from festival to festival. When I was 13, I won the Walnut Valley fiddle championship. They had four or five different stages, bluegrass bands, merchant people selling stuff, a fairground and food trucks. You could buy a turkey leg and we’d pull our sleeves over the turkey legs so it looked like we were eating our hands. We thought that was funny. Later, in my mid teens, I started playing with the first lineup of Union Station. We weren’t well known, so while there might have been thousands of people at the festival, they’d be at a different stage to the one we were playing. It was so muddy that our banjo player – who was always very well dressed – said: “I’m not going to ruin my clothes.” So he went on stage in American flag shorts. I would always sleep on the floor of the van and, by the time I woke up, my face would be stuck to the rubber.

The Cox Family

When I was 14, I heard a recording of this singing family from Louisiana. The singing was so terrific I became obsessed with them, but couldn’t find anything out about who they were. The summer I turned 17, we played a festival in Texas and they were on the bill. This is crazy how rude this was – I was such a nerd! – but I got up at 7am and went around knocking on camper vans asking people: “Do you know the Cox Family or where I might find them?” The sun wasn’t even up. I finally found someone who knew them and took me over and we hung out all day. It was so funny because someone had sent Suzanne, the youngest girl, my record, so they had been listening to my stuff while I was listening to theirs. We have been friends ever since and I’ve recorded a whole bunch of their songs. They’re bluegrass royalty now; an amazing family.

The happy van

I spent so much of my teenage years in vans. I drove my parents’ little brown Honda station wagon with [bluegrass star] Ricky Skaggs cranked up, and when I was 16 or 17 I had a 77 Dodge van that had plaid inside and no air conditioning. Mike Harman from Union Station had a van that we called “the happy van”. We sold T-shirts from it; my mum made a big cutout of [bluegrass great] Bill Monroe so it looked like he was wearing our T-shirt and we hung him on the side of the van. When I was 15, I got my driving permit and Mike said: “You’re driving!” So my first experience of driving anywhere outside the parking lot was the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He told me: “See all this stuff on the dash? None of this should move when you’re driving.” I wasn’t thrilled, but when you’re young you don’t think what could happen.

One time, I had played a show with Tony Rice in Baltimore, Maryland. It was 2am and he said: “You drive!” So I drove Tony’s famous Lincoln Continental with my permit. Now, when you think of things I’d want a 15-year-old doing, it seems crazy, but I loved the conversation. He talked about music all the way; played Leon Redbone and talked about why he loved him. So there I was, spending this special time with my all-time musical hero, keeping my eyes on the dials and trying not to crash the car and kill us.

Andrea Bocelli & Alison Krauss’s Amazing Grace, from Bocelli’s album Believe, is out now on Decca

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