Even before Dan Tyminski joined Alison Krauss and Union Station in 1994, the group was the talk of the bluegrass world.
“All eyes were on that band,” said Tyminski, a singer who also plays guitar and mandolin. “They were unique, and they had such a powerful sound.”
Tyminski, then a member of the Virginia-based bluegrass group the Lonesome River Band, was friends with Union Station when the group’s guitarist, Tim Stafford, left to form Blue Highway.
“I had traveled sometimes with Alison and Union Station, and I would sing a couple of songs at some of their shows,” Tyminski said.
Following Stafford’s departure, Union Station invited Tyminski to join the band, which returns Thursday to New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. They’ll play at 5:25 p.m. on the Gentilly Stage.
Tyminski was thrilled by the invite. But because he played mandolin, not guitar, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to “cut the gig,” he said, as a fledgling guitarist.
In 1995, by which time Tyminski had settled in, Krauss and Union Station released the compilation album “Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection.” A huge country and pop hit, it made the band more popular than ever.
Successful though Krauss and Union Station was in the mid-’90s, even greater popularity was to come. Tyminski’s heartfelt performance of the traditional folk song, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” helped make it happen.
In late 2000, Lost Highway Records released the T-Bone Burnett-produced, roots-music filled soundtrack album for the Coen brothers’ Southern fable on film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
The album features Krauss’ moving solo performance of “Down to the River to Pray” and her collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch for “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby.” But Tyminski’s “Man of Constant Sorrow,” lip-synced on screen by actor George Clooney, became the album’s most recognizable track.
The “O Brother” soundtrack sold nearly 8 million copies. It won a Grammy for album of the year. Tyminski’s “Constant Sorrow” won a Grammy for best country collaboration. And bluegrass great Ralph Stanley’s chilling a cappella rendition of “O Death” won a Grammy for best male country vocal performance.
“It was just spectacular to see how it touched such a broad range of music fans,” Tyminski said. “Young, old, rock, country bluegrass, blues. All the genres found a place for that in their ears.”
For weeks, Tyminski found himself doing several interviews a day.
“I’d grown up with bluegrass music, where record sales in excess of 20,000 were considered a success,” he said. “To be a part of ‘O Brother’ was outside of my scope.”
Fourteen years after “O Brother,” Tyminski said, “we play ‘Constant Sorrow’ in every show. It still gets a reaction every time. ‘Down to the River’ still gets a reaction. It amazes me that these songs have that type of staying power. I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Throughout his years with Krauss and Union Station, the band never consciously sought commercial success, Tyminski said.
“We enjoyed slow, steady growth within our fan base,” he said. “But every time something good happens for the band — if we win an award or make a TV appearance or a song does well — we see a difference in our crowds and sales. But it’s still hard to compare anything we’ve done to what happened with ‘O Brother.’ ”
Following Union Station’s one-off festival appearance at Jazz Fest, the group will do its second consecutive summer tour with country legend Willie Nelson.
“A lot of times it’s difficult for us to compete with bigger country acts and people who push so many decibels,” Tyminski said. “But Willie’s show is such a good fit. It’s dressed down, not overly loud. When something works so well, it’s hard not to want to continue doing it.”
In the meantime, Krauss, Union Station’s angel-toned front woman, remains Tyminski’s favorite singing partner.
“No on else sounds like Alison or thinks like Alison,” he said. “She is such an obvious talent. She is special above everyone else.”