Because everyone knows bluegrass sells about as well as week-old bread, stardom is not defined by record sales, but by the pecking order of outdoor performances: Headline at the Telluride Festival in Colorado and you're big stuff; open the Hamby Mountain blowout in Baldwin, Ga., and your career is plainly stuck in first gear. The singular exception is Alison Krauss, a 25-year-old fiddler whose l994 album "Now That I've Found You" has sold more than 2 million copies. Though schooled in traditional bluegrass, Krauss isn't afraid to reinvent songs by the Beatles (adding banjo, dobro and steel drums to "I Will") and Bad Company (twisting "Oh, Atlanta" into a bit of bluesy funk). Purists may scoff, but even old-timers such as Del McCoury have followed her lead.
"Now That I've Found You" was clearly a star turn, featuring her pure soprano more than her fiddle playing or the tight vocal and instrumental interplay of her band, Union Station. "So Long, So Wrong" wants to have it every which way: It's a band album and a solo showcase, a bluegrass record and a pop disc. Krauss sings lead on only eight of the 13 songs with vocals on them, and directs the instrumental spotlight toward banjoist-guitarist Ron Block, mandolinist Adam Steffey, guitarist Dan Tyminski and bassist Barry Bales with the generosity of a jazz bandleader. The songs sung by the men are by far the most traditional, a point driven home by the high three-part harmonies and the timeless struggle suggested by their titles: "No Place to Hide," "Blue Trail of Sorrow" and "Pain of a Troubled Life." Though vital and well-played, they come off like a slightly defensive statement of purity, as if Krauss is trying to win back those moldy figs who've abandoned her.
Krauss sounds more confident when she sings lead herself, even if the lyrics sometimes betray her, as on the title track -- its breezy kiss-off of a lover seems true to a precocious, nomadic musician with seven albums to her credit. While beautifully sung, "I Can Let Go Now" and "It Doesn't Matter" aren't as distinctive; Krauss sounds like a tortured sister of Rosanne Cash, tearing her heart out in ways we've all heard before. But the only time Krauss truly misses is on "Looking in the Eyes of Love," a soupy ballad that is almost -- but not quite -- redeemed by her remarkable voice.
Despite a few self-conscious arrangements and arty cello parts, "So Long, So Wrong" isn't as groundbreaking as the best of "Now That I've Found You." With bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe recently departed, Krauss may be anxious about straying too far from tradition. Really, though, she ought to trust her instincts and fully explode it.