Alison Krauss has more Grammys than any other woman in history. Twenty-seven from 42 nominations, to be precise.
They recognise the bluegrass singer for her work with Union Station, as a solo artist, as a contributor to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and as Robert Plant’s foil on Raising Sand.
Earlier this year, it looked like she would be overtaken by Beyonce – who went into the Grammys with nine nominations on top of her 22 previous wins.
As you might have heard, though, Adele denied her the title, beating Beyonce in multiple categories.
You might expect Krauss to be relieved – but she says she’d have been honoured to hand over the crown.
“All I know is Beyonce is one of the most beautiful, talented, amazing people I’ve ever seen in my life,” says the star.
“If she gets my title, it is well-deserved. She’s much more deserving than I could ever be! She’s amazing.”
Despite that, Krauss looks set to extend her lead over Beyonce, given the rapturous response to Windy City, her first solo album in 18 years.
Recorded with Nashville stalwart Buddy “Ears” Cannon, it delves into the roots of bluegrass, resurrecting and reinterpreting songs that (largely) predate Krauss’s birthdate in 1971.
“I wanted to record songs that were older than me,” she says. “There’s something about being a generation separated from the song you’re singing. It’s an extra step of romance.”
A list of candidates was quickly drawn up, rarities and standards alike – from Glen Campell’s Gentle On My Mind, to Willie Nelson’s I Never Cared For You.
“We didn’t go in with any rules,” says Krauss. “It was really whatever we liked and once we got everything together, we stopped. We didn’t keep looking.”
Not that the finalised tracklisting was without its issues. At least one person warned her off covering Brenda Lee’s Losing You.
“My son was saying, ‘Mom, you oughta leave these Brenda Lee songs alone!'” she laughs.
“Even I remember driving around going, ‘Man, how am I going to do this?’
“But I felt like my emotions were tied to [Losing You]. I’m certainly not going to try to compare myself to the one and only. That would be crazy. You don’t get any better than that. Nobody has and nobody will.”
Her fans would beg to differ. In a world of hyperbole, Alison Krauss’s voice is truly exceptional: An exquisite, ethereal sound that improves any music it alights upon.
But in the middle of the sessions for Windy City, it suddenly abandoned her.
“I had something called dysphonia – which is just a fancy word for hoarse,” she explains.
“What would happen is the muscles around my voice box would tighten up, and it was like singing through a little straw. It sounded terrible.”
Often, Krauss would arrive at the studio ready for a day’s work, only to send the musicians home before the first coffee break.
“I’ve never worked less on something for so long,” she jokes – but for someone whose voice is their career, the situation was infuriating.
“I didn’t feel like it was permanent because my musical hero growing up, Tony Rice, had the same issue – but it was incredibly annoying.”
She eventually turned things around after seeking out vocal coach Ron Browning, whose lessons were “like getting a shot in the arm”. After that, the album flowed relatively quickly.
The songs all hark back to Krauss’s upbringing in small-town Illinois. Her parents weren’t particularly interested in country music, and the family spent most of their time listening to Top 40 radio.
“We liked AC/DC and ELO, or Gary Numan’s Cars,” she recalls. “And I loved hard rock – Lynnyrd Skynnrd, Bad Company and Foreigner.”
That all changed when she took up the violin. Krauss took classical lessons from the age of five but soon bored of the regimented practice.
“Then my mom heard about a [bluegrass] fiddle contest, so she got a book and we went and got a record – Richard Greene’s Duets.
“I didn’t even know at the time, but that had everybody playing on it. JD Crow, Tony Rice, Sam Bush – all the people I grew to worship were on this record, but I basically learned a couple of tunes off of that [and] it was pretty sweet how everything worked out!”
Having “brought Bluegrass into the house”, Krauss went on to become a student of the genre which, she explains, has more in common with folk than country.
“Bluegrass is known for being an acoustic music and it has banjo, like you’d hear on the Beverly Hillbillies’ theme.
“You really don’t hear [lyrics] about contemporary subjects. It’s simplistic – the land, God, family, home – and that’s the subject matter.”
Krauss’s favourite lyrics take the form of a monologue – where the singer is spilling their guts, but you’re never quite sure whether the conversation is real or taking place in their head.
One such song on Windy City is You Don’t Know Me, originally made famous by Eddy Arnold and Ray Charles, but written by Cindy Walker.
“But I never knew the art of making love / Though my heart aches with love for you,” pines the singer. “I’m afraid and shy, I let my chance go by / A chance that you might love me too.“
“It’s my favourite subject and my favourite emotion to sing,” says Krauss. “Women are celebrated for not showing emotion: ‘Oh, she’s so strong, because she didn’t betray her emotions.’ And it goes against nature, really. Women are emotional.
“And I think it’s interesting… To be that stoic and not share when you love so hard – that subject is the epitome of wishing something was different but deciding to keep it together instead.”
Krauss urges me to seek out a video of Walker, who is moved to tears as she recalls how the song came to her [it’s available on the Grammy YouTube channel].
“That song was basically dropped out of the sky to her,” marvels Krauss. “The video is amazing – just showing what inspiration looks like.
“I’m fascinated by songwriters and how they get their information. I’ve been around them my whole life and that’s a sacred time, watching someone create.
‘I’m no poet’
“You know, I’ve sat with people while they’re writing songs, and they’d go, ‘Al, sing this for me.’
“So I’d sing [but] I don’t like to ever get in the way. To even be trusted with something in such a vulnerable state is incredible.”
Strangely, though, for such a gifted musician, Krauss has never been moved to write her own material.
“I don’t have any interest in it,” she says. “I’m no poet, and I know people who are. So why would I try to create something for myself?”
Not for the first time, she’s being modest. Krauss’s sympathetic arrangements and vocal interpretations can elevate even the weakest songs in her repertoire.
“I’ve had people mention that about me,” she admits. “And there’s something about my interpretation that does bring something to people – or I wouldn’t be getting to have this experience in life.
“It’s a really interesting process for me with songs I feel I have to sing. The same thing always happens: You see a picture in your mind. You see a picture and a story and it just happens without having to conjure anything up. I don’t have to sit there and wonder, ‘What was this like?’ I just get to have it.
“It’s a magical thing.”