John, your stomach's getting big," Alison Krauss teases, as her eternally lanky mentor, John Pennell, slips his guitar onto his lap in the antique barber chair in the kitchen. Soon their laughter melts into music as Krauss, 23, fiddles and Pennell, 44, picks out the buoyant, skittering bluegrass that has united them in friendship the last 11 years.
The jam, in her parents' house in Champaign, Ill., revives memories of the 12-hour weekend practices they used to hold around the same chair when Krauss was in her early teens. "We'd go to Burger King before practice and get a bacon double cheeseburger and practice so long we'd have to go get another one," Krauss says. Obviously, the practice—if not the cholesterol—paid off. Krauss's supernal soprano and virtuosic fiddling have made her bluegrass's reigning superstar, with two Grammy Awards and sales of her five albums totaling more than 500,000 copies—an outlandish number in a field in which 20,000 is considered commendable.
The unlikely musical alliance between Pennell and Krauss began when he and two musician buddies who were hoping to put together a blue-grass band heard about a local girl who could play torrid fiddle. They arranged an audition. Even though she had just won a state fiddling contest, Krauss says, "I was nervous and scared." Yet her fiddling on the very first song blew them away. Then she started to sing. "We couldn't believe it," Pennell recalls. "I hadn't expected to be bowled over. She was 12 and had the most beautiful voice I had ever heard." They formed a band called Silver Rail and started playing in area clubs.
Her parents had insisted that Krauss and her brother Viktor, 25 (now a bass player in Nashville), take music lessons for five years when they were growing up; but Alison proved a talented if indifferent violin student. "She never even practiced before John came along," marvels Alison's father, Fred, who owns and manages student apartments in the college town, and once sang opera. (Mom Louise is an illustrator who used to play guitar and banjo.) "Then she'd go out and win damn contests. Just lucked out, I guess." But Krauss's attitude was transformed by Pennell, a shy Ph.D. candidate in music composition who supported himself doing leatherwork. "He changed my whole focus," she says. "He got me into the timeless qualities of bluegrass. I wouldn't be playing now if not for John."
Krauss, who has a boyfriend in Nashville, has recorded 14 of Pennell's songs, providing him with annual royalties that allow him to live comfortably and spend his time performing in local clubs and teaching guitar at Parkland College. She would record even more of his tunes ("He doesn't know how good he is"), but they are slow in coming. During their jam, she urges him to write new ones. "I'm working, I'm working," he protests. Soon their laughter again gives way to the joyous jump of bluegrass.
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