Alison Krauss: O Brother! The country girl who met the Led Zep legend

Her album of duets with the singer Robert Plant, and work with the Coen brothers, has brought the bluegrass star global acclaim. But she tells James McNair that she's still a simple girl

Backstage at The Sage, Gateshead, the phrase "hob-nobbing with the stars" has taken on a different meaning. The McVitie's oatmeal biscuit of the same name is much loved by Alison Krauss, and a pack of the treats is brightening the singer's day post-sound-check.

Such simple pleasures seem curiously typical of this 26-time Grammy award winner and reigning bluegrass queen, a woman who is, by all accounts, very low-maintenance. Warm but wary, sans make-up, and dressed in a tomboy-ish, decidedly off-stage outfit of purple sweatshirt, jogging pants and trainers, Krauss deflects compliments and describes herself as "a bit of a hermit; someone a little out of step with the modern world."

Presumably her band-mates fussed over her when she turned 40 on tour back in July, I enquire.

"Oh no!" she says, pulling a goofy "appalled at the idea" face. "I'm not a big party person and I wouldn't want them walking onstage with a cake..."

My interviewee's distinct lack of diva syndrome reportedly impressed Robert Plant when the pair duetted on 2008's 2.5 million-selling album Raising Sand, but other factors – Krauss's impeccable bluegrass pedigree, her impish, apple-shaped cheeks – were doubtless a draw, too.

Signed to esteemed roots-music imprint Rounder Records when she was 14, this gifted Decatur, Illinois-born fiddler and singer had a residency at the Grand Ole Opry by the time she was 21. When T-Bone Burnett came to produce the soundtrack for celebrated bluegrass-fuelled comedy film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Krauss was a trusted contributor and consultant.

Another O Brother session player, the singer and guitarist Dan Tyminski, continues to co-front Krauss's band Union Station today, and, at gigs, Krauss jokingly introduces him as "the voice of George Clooney". Between them Krauss and Tyminski have probably done more to propagate bluegrass than anyone since the inventor of the banjo. But after all these years, what is it that brings Krauss back to the well?

"I just love the message", she says, pulling at tousled blonde locks various hair-clips are failing to tame. "It's a fantasy about simple life and basic values and there's not too much psychology or over-thinking things. It's 'one woman and only this woman', you know? It's, 'I believe this and only this'. It's, 'I killed this person and I should have', or 'I killed that person and I shouldn't have'. It's very black and white and I love the picture it paints about home and family." But for her it's just a fantasy?

"Well, when I say fantasy, I don't mean that it isn't truthful," the singer qualifies. "When I listen to Charlie Louvin's music I hear about the hard times in life and the beautiful times. It rings true and I can get lost in it."

Talented, phenomenally successful – and let's face it wealthy – Krauss may be, but such blessings are, of course, ultimately unable to prevent life's tougher challenges. It's well known that the singer brought up her son Sam (now 12) as a single mum, having divorced from his bluegrass musician father Patrick Bergeson in 2001, but Krauss and those around her guard her privacy closely, and if she has dated anyone since Bergeson, names are not something search engines proffer at the click of a mouse.

One of the key tracks on Paper Airplane, the fine but unrelentingly melancholic 2011 album that Krauss's UK tour is promoting, is her take on Richard Thompson's masterful 1973 ballad, "Dimming of the Day". First sung by Thompson's wife Linda while the couple were going through their own divorce, it's obviously a song that has resonance for Krauss. So much resonance, in fact, that she declined to sing it on Jools Holland's Later... earlier this year for fear she might break down.

"Goodbye is All We Have"; "Ghost in This House"; "Too Late To Cry" – Krauss's back catalogue is riddled with heartache, while part of Paper Airplane's title track runs: "Every silver lining always seems to have a cloud/ That comes my way." That old joke that, if you play a country record backwards, the crop doesn't fail, your dog doesn't die, and your partner doesn't leave you, reminds us of the genre's pact with adversity. Still, if you're hurting, doesn't singing country aggravate matters?

When I'm singing those songs and I relate to them it's not tortuous," says Krauss a little guardedly. "It's a healing thing for me and that never gets old. I think that people respond to honesty in music, so I only choose songs that are the truth for me. Whenever I've chosen a song because it's clever, it's always turned out to be a mistake." So there isn't a part of her that would like to sing Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance To the Music" every night?

"Sure, I love that song! That and [Stone's] "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" are so great. I sing along and I can participate in those feelings, but that's not my musical identity right now. Maybe that will change – I don't know. If it does, Sly and the Family Stone is what I'll end up singing."

Krauss says that she learned a great deal working with Robert Plant, not least the value of "capturing the moment". It's no secret that the pair started work on a follow-up to Raising Sand, but, by mutual agreement, they later abandoned the new recordings.

"I think it was just too soon," she says when asked why the stars didn't align second time around. "We had an amazing band in there, but the music sounded like an extension of the first album and we were looking for something that had a fresh identity of its own. I guess it was a bit optimistic to expect lightning to strike twice, but I wouldn't be surprised if we try again at some point. "

As our interview winds down, we broach other topics. Krauss tells me abut the cherished fiddle that came to her via a Louisville, Kentucky, collector some 30 years ago, about the migraine headaches that plagued her during the making of Paper Airplane, and about the ongoing insomnia that doubtless led her brother Viktor Krauss and songwriter Angel Snow to pen new album standout "Lie Awake" for her.

She says that her respect for God is at the core of everything she does, and that her faith gives her a hope she doesn't think she would have otherwise.

"I don't look for bliss, just contentment," she adds. "I don't know if bliss is possible and I've always thought that my best times will be later in life."

Later that night it's a beautifully made-up and much more glamorously attired Krauss who takes the stage in Gateshead. Her own virtuosity is on a par with that of Dobro-master Jerry Douglas, but she still comes across as the most unassuming of bandleaders.

"Why do we play all these sad, sad songs?" she jokes at one point. "Well, I guess we're just sad, sad, people!" It's probably an established line of stage banter, but it feels as though she's poking fun at my line of questioning. The subtext? Simply that melancholy can be enjoyable.

The deluxe edition of 'Paper Airplane' is out now on Decca. The single "My Love Follows You Where You Go" is out on Monday. Alison Krauss and Union Station play the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (020 7960 4200) 12 to 15 November

Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers