It was supposed to be a lark, the joint album by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and certainly not a cash-in or an awards play. So the first big surprise about “Raising Sand” — the 2007 collaborative effort by the erstwhile Led Zeppelin frontman and the bluegrass-turned-pop singer and violinist — was that it got made at all.
The second was that such a seemingly niche project, delicately crafted with roots-virtuoso producer T Bone Burnett, not only went platinum but was honored with six Grammys — including two of the top categories, album of the year and record of the year.
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If you’re Krauss, who long held the mark for most Grammys by a female artist (her 27 were finally surpassed this year when Beyoncé moved up to 28), that kind of statuary accumulation is just another day at the office. But if you’re Plant, well …
“I’d never seen a Grammy before!” he exclaims as he recalls the trophies he and Krauss piled up (one for a single in 2008, then a five-Grammy sweep in 2009). “It’s true. How about that?” Led Zeppelin fans can insert a bitter laugh here: The group received a nod for best new artist in 1970 and then, infamously, didn’t get another until 2014, 35 years after Zeppelin’s breakup, when they won their first non-honorary Grammy, for a live album. And yet, Plant says, “I team up with a remarkable young lady, and people just keep throwing them at me. So I thought that was really quite cute. I don’t know why I didn’t stick around a bit longer, actually. I could have had loads now — could’ve been giving them to family members.”
He’s about to get another shot at a surplus. On Nov. 19, there will be a sequel: “Raise the Roof,” again produced by Burnett, with the studio, record company and several key musicians from the first round all revisited. In many ways, it feels like same time, next year, but 14 years later. On this mostly covers project, they even dip back into two of the catalogs explored on “Raising Sand”: those of the Everly Brothers and Allen Toussaint. The other wildly eclectic songs range from “Can’t Let Go,” originally popularized by Lucinda Williams, to an 18-year-old song by the indie-rock group Calexico; from an under-remembered Merle Haggard classic to a nearly century-old tune by a blues singer who only ever cut six tracks and left no surviving photographs. With drummer Jay Bellerose and guitarist Marc Ribot returning as band members, and new additions such as jazz great Bill Frisell and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, the album sounds warm, mystical and at times slightly foreboding, like an old friend you’re glad to see again who’s still a little mysterious.
Which raises the question: Why did it take Plant and Krauss 14 years of being besieged with pleas for a follow-up to come through with one? “The question you ask is one that everybody asks,” Plant says, batting away its inevitability. “But it’s a stock question, and it doesn’t exist in my world.” Endeavors will be made to get an answer nonetheless.
• • •
On this hot Nashville day, Plant and Krauss are settled in the lounge of Sound Emporium, opened by Sun Records cohort Cowboy Jack Clement in a residential neighborhood in 1969, a year after Led Zeppelin was founded and two years before Krauss was born. These two contemporary music legends are as much opposites in what they’re wearing today as they are in their sing¬ing styles. Plant, longish-haired and trim, has come into the studio in a plain T-shirt. Krauss, meanwhile, has grabbed a cup of what she says is remarkably delicious studio coffee and curls up in her gray sweater in a chair in the library-like green room, as if warming herself after coming in from the cold. Which one of them is appropriately dressed for the weather? Plant, having just jetted in from a considerably cooler Worcester, England, is ready to bask in the humidity (with a trip to the city’s favorite record store, Grimey’s, in the cards for the afternoon). Krauss, being a local, may just be aware of the high likelihood that any room in the South this time of year could be overly air-conditioned. Not for the first or last time, they’re both right.
Plant proves more the hilarious raconteur of the two in the next hour-plus, although, he promises: “If you think I’m nuts, you wait until she kicks in. More coffee and she’d be off.” Krauss provides a nearly nonstop laugh track during some of her musical partner’s digressions — and occasionally shoots a look to a visitor that says, can you believe this guy? — but in the breaks between the comedy, she can cut to the quick with a precise statement that says in 150 words what Plant might get around to in an eloquently footnoted, highly entertaining thousand. No assumptions should be made about who’s more alpha in this pack. (“I always think Alison really is the leader of this outfit,” Burnett says in a separate interview.)
The generational difference (he’s 73; she’s 50) is apparent only once, when asked some of their initial impressions of each other’s music before joining forces. One song of his that Krauss cites as an all-time favorite is “No Quarter.” “That was great, yeah — that was a John Paul Jones moment,” Plant says, giving credit where credit is due. But she’s not even thinking of the Zeppelin original; Krauss really came to love the version Plant and Jimmy Page cut in their post-Zep years as a duo, on a 1994 live album that was also titled “No Quarter.”
Plant, of course, knew of Krauss’ prowess as a renowned fiddler who’d gone multiplatinum crossing over into pop in the ’90s. But the track he brings up is Alison and her brother Viktor’s 2004 version of his 1983 modest solo hit “Big Log.” “Alison’s bluegrass world is tantalizing and really beautiful,” he says. “But when I heard her singing ‘Big Log,’ I was so flattered. It was on your brother’s record, wasn’t it?”
She replies, “My brother and I loved when that song came out on MTV. We thought it was the most incredible thing.”
Plant confesses, “I couldn’t believe that anybody could take my [solo] songwriting seriously, so I was just amazed. I used to play it over and over again, saying, ‘Look, people know me out there.’ The fact that a luminary like Alison would be singing a song about my torrid love affairs … And you did the outro ad lib as well.”
“We tried to match your phrasing exactly,” Krauss recalls.
“And who would believe our familiarity with each other now?” Plant finishes, adding (in a joking reference to one of his iconic, and often parodied, Zeppelin lyrics), “You must’ve thought, ‘Who is this Martian who came from the land of the ice and snow?’”
Krauss and Plant clearly have much not in common, but one attribute they share may help to explain why the idiosyncratic “Raising Sand” became a phenomenon — and, equally, why there was absolutely no hurry to capitalize on it with a follow-up: Neither performer feels much compulsion to stick with what brought ’em to the dance. They’ve both dealt with audiences who felt betrayed by the artists’ career choices — Krauss, when she moved on from string-band music into sophisticated, and fiddle-free, pop balladry (although you can still hear her bust out the bluegrass on tour with her band Union Station); Plant as a man disinclined to look back, particularly when it comes to any talk of a Zeppelin reunion beyond their one-off in 2007. Both already have thick skins, so resisting pressure for a “Raising Sand 2’” until real inspiration slowly returned was kind of a cinch.
“I think you’re right, yeah,” says Plant, agreeing that the wait was hardly as interminable for them as it was for fans (or, probably, the record company). “It makes it more exotic, especially now. And this journey to get to this point, in this room, was a long one. Not the 14 years or whatever it is [since ‘Raising Sand’]; you should do it again when you know that all your ducks are in the right row. … As with so many artists, and so many of us no matter what walk of life we tread, it’s a hell of a game. So to maintain inspiration and have some idea of an endgame has been very odd.”
Krauss adds: “Through the years we were always sending songs back and forth, saying, ‘Oh, this would be a good one.’ … [But] I try not to do anything that I don’t feel inspired to do — to stay away from anything contrived. And sometimes that’s years and years and years between records.” (She doesn’t mean just Plant-Krauss albums; she’s released only two of her own in the past 15 years.) “I just want to do it at the right time, or things don’t last for you and don’t keep growing in your mind.”
Plant provides a more elaborate travelogue of the road he’s been on between sand-raising and roof-raising. There was a brief attempt to record a second album together in the late 2000s, but the wanderlust that made Plant interested in exploring American roots pushed him into panning for global gold. “I wanted to go back to North Africa,” he says. “I wanted to stand on the Atlas Mountains. I wanted to hear the Berbers singing in the fields. I wanted to hear that thing that I have no understanding of. And I wanted to do something that didn’t have a structure, particularly. So that’s the way it went: some time with [his group] the Band of Joy, and then off into the desert with my British mates [his other group, the Sensational Shape Shifters]. We were playing around Marrakech, and I was traveling down the Moroccan coast, because I needed somebody to knock me about musically. And I don’t know whether I learned anything from it — or just ate a lot of really good food — but then Alison and I were ready to get together.” The two of them sharing a bill with Willie Nelson in 2019, and Plant enjoying hanging with Krauss’ musicologist dad and her band, reminded him: “Oh. My other family. My sister, almost.”
Says Burnett: “They very much make all the decisions between them. But I think Robert would say too … she’s a very strong woman, and we both have great respect for her. She’s brilliant. On the first record, she was always pushing for it to be dark and slower: ‘Intensity doesn’t have anything to do with tempo.’ And it leaves you a lot of space in the slower tempos for the darkness, you know?” But why did Krauss, seen by so many as an angel of light, want to use this teaming to emphasize the dark side? “I couldn’t hazard a guess,” Burnett chuckles, being someone who’s just fine with a woman maintaining a little mystery.
“Raise the Roof,” its celebrative title notwithstanding, does go dark, especially when the two are, say, turning the Everly Brothers’ “The Price of Love” into the dreamier warning shot about the dangers of romance that it always threatened to be. Burnett has some ideas about how the pair’s complementary qualities work.
“She’s much more pristine, so I think her goal is to get it to a certain level of excellence that you don’t really aspire to in the blues. And Robert is the other way: He’s loose like the blues,” Burnett says. “She’s much more rehearsed and he’s more improvisational; she’s much more clean and he’s dirty.”
Krauss puts it in less hygienic terms. Plant “is so free with everything that he sings. If someone’s going to play a teeny little thing different in the studio, he’s going to sing it differently. And that’s part of why that’s so magical, because he’s always on the edge, and it’s a beautiful thing. I’ve come from a school of very regimented singing, because if there was a (harmonizing bluegrass) trio, someone’s going to get mad at you if you switch it up; that trio wants consistency. And so I think why this really works and sounds so different is because he doesn’t change who he is. And I don’t change who I am. “ Her challenge, she feels, is to take her formality and “match what he’s doing in that spontaneity.”
“When she takes the lead, I tremble,” Plant says, as counterpoint. “Because it’s setting me a task for which I’m not very well equipped. I mean, I know how I can hear myself singing underneath, alongside, behind, to the left of what Allison’s doing. But invariably, it’s wrong.”
Krauss laughs, then inquires seriously: “How is it wrong?”
“Because you say, ‘Well, yeah, that’s very nice, you know, Robert — but perhaps you want to do this.’ And then she gives me some kind of upside-down bit of vocal, and I go, ‘Ah, I can’t even imagine how that works against that absolutely pure, magnificent, feminine, Alison Krauss voice. I’ve got to jump through a hoop, get over a fence, come back round and stand on my head. She teaches me a lot, which is great. Because I want to do things where I’m not really properly equipped for it. I make a hash of it, but somebody can mop it up. I’m quite frightened of it all, to be honest.”
Krauss tries to almost apologetically explain why she’s so gifted at harmony: because of the strict regiments of the genre that brought her to the dance. Harmony singing “is all we did, you know. We didn’t go to prom. We weren’t cool. We couldn’t do anything but sit there and work on harmony — me and however many tens of thousands of bluegrass people all sat around and dreamed about the past and felt like they lived in the wrong era.”
Replies Plant: You were doing that while I was lying under a Banyan tree somewhere in India, going, ‘Wow, man, that was strong,'” he half-kids. “But we’re in the same room now.”
• • •
Can lightning strike three times? Producer Burnett, for one, eager to keep the band together this time. “You know, Robert’s mentioned that he wants to do this again. It would be fun just to do the next one as a straight-up rockin’ record, too, so I’m lobbying for that. We’ll see what happens. They’re hoping to be able to go on the road, but I would love to get in (back into Sound Emporium) as soon as we can. So maybe this one will happen in just five or seven years or something,” he laughs, then corrects himself. “No, I feel this is the time to do it. If we’re going to do it again, we should just do it and get after it.” From his lips to the godly odd couple’s ears.
For Plant, “Raise the Roof” is the latest soul-satisfying chapter in a career reclamation that he says began around 1992. He knew he had to move on when Zeppelin broke up circa 1980, but which path yet untaken remained a question mark; he courted MTV while trying not to sound anything like what he’d left behind, as others swept in to fill that hard-rock void … badly.
“I’d become a cliché, you see,” he says. “I went from being quite radically impromptu and experimental — or just very fortunate to be keeping such incredibly creative company in Led Zeppelin; Page and I were playing in India with small orchestras, with the aid of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar in Bombay — to then find out, almost at the end of it all, that I was basically responsible for so much crap. So many people have used that group as a sort of springboard to kill the very essence of what it was. So many groups formed [that were] ‘coming from the land of the ice and snow,’” he says, again invoking the lyrics of the much-imitated “Immigrant Song.” “I went, geez, that was just one journey from Iceland to England, and me being a student of history and all that. And then, to look around and think: I’m responsible for so much rubbish! Not that I created, but that spawned this thing. So I tried to get the hell out of it. And the further I went to try to get out of it, the more people went, ‘Come back and give us some more of that!’ Which was horrible, because once it’s gone, it’s gone. Goodbye John Bonham, and it’s gone.”
Clearly, Plant can wax quite eloquent when his old band arises in the course of conversation, but the documentary about the group that premiered at film festivals this fall, “Becoming Led Zeppelin,” is the one subject brought up that leaves him at a loss for words. “I just don’t know,” he says, amid some long pauses. “I recognize some of the sentiment of it, but … I was there, and to see a group of people try to bring some perspective to it now is very odd. I’m not sure it’s not just too vast to be solarized and polarized like that.” It’s clear he’d rather be talking about something else.
Like, say, his early solo career, as something that represented some bumpy road blocks on the path to a peaceful present. “I had to get a new voice,” he explains. To his later chagrin, a new wardrobe was involved in that, too. “I had to wear Katharine Hamnett silk jumpsuits and ballet shoes. I had to have a moment” — of self-embarrassment, he means.
“Everyone had to have a moment. Even I had a moment,” says Krauss, possibly remembering some bad hair days in her 35-year career.
Plant laughs. “Yes, I’ve seen pictures of you,” he says. “But how do you think I feel? I wore paisley jumpers on ‘Top of the Pops’! I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I was young enough to actually make a break for it, to see if I could get past the perimeter fence, but I kept falling into the quagmire more and more. I needed some strength around me, and I didn’t have it. I could sing, I could write, but I was almost writing for somebody I didn’t know … called me.”
Plant finally found his new voice, in Marrakech and other far-flung climes … but also in Austin and Nashville. Country was not part of his upbringing like the blues was, but it’s filtered into his music over time, most especially so in this bifurcated collaboration with Krauss, whom he counts as a primary teacher catching him up on the vast library of Americana he missed out on back in the day.
Says Krauss, “I come from the Carter family and Jimmie Rogers and that blue-collar music that I love so much that then found its way into bluegrass. And he is the same way. It’s like the same things. It’s just that one was north of Mississippi and one was in Mississippi.”
Explains Plant: “In England, we never really got a fair expose of the beautiful music that Alison’s made me aware of. Radio has always been just a little bit left of diabolical in the U.K., so it was considered rather deprecating to actually even consider country music as an idiom. Nothing really registered outside of a New Musical Express top 20, because radio was waiting to pass over this whole rock ‘n’ roll, country-and-Western, rockabilly thing: ‘It’ll be gone soon and we can get back to Dickie Valentine and Jack Jones.’ As art-college kids, doing the whole Bohemian/beatnik thing, we lent towards this exotic Delta music. Two German promoters brought Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and people like that all around Europe, and they were greeted with hushed tones and venerated beyond all belief. That was our childhood. It was either that or some schmooze, sugarcoated, hardly palatable music. But we didn’t have that great thing of Charlie Rich when he came into his own after the rockabilly time, or George Jones doing the most incredible singing…”
He pauses and lets out a long sigh. “We didn’t have Cracker Barrel.”
This comment sends Krauss into hysterics, as Plant exults, “But I do now! I’ve just got to take apart one of those rocking chairs” — the ones spread across Cracker Barrel’s front porches nationwide — “and put it in my suitcase.”
“You can have it shipped,” she offers.
“Yeah, just like that,” Plant decides. “The captain can sit on it while he’s sailing it across! ‘Head east!’”
While he figures out the details of his return transport — and while they ponder whether a tour can safely be mounted in the lingering COVID climate — Plant isn’t worried about earning armloads of Grammys again with “Raise the Roof.” He’s frankly anxious about the word getting out at all.
“Who would say that it makes any difference whether it sticks or not, so long as we get it the way we want it?” he says. “I just hope people hear it. These days you find out that people you know very well have made records that you didn’t know about. The game has changed so much. But,” he concludes more brightly, “I’m sure that if they hear this, they’ll realize that there’s people still alive in it, that we’re still alive inside the vinyl, chirping away like a couple of little bluebirds.”
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