I REMEMBER Robert Plant suggesting a funny headline when he first teamed up with Alison Krauss.
“You should put, ‘Gruesome hotel wrecker meets Pre-Raphaelite maiden’,” he told me back in 2007.
The one-time Led Zeppelin hellraiser knew he’d struck up an unlikely partnership with the serene queen of bluegrass.
Yet their first album together, Raising Sand, was a storming, Grammy-winning success.
It proved a challenging project for the freewheeling rock icon who emerged from the Black Country in the late Sixties with his “hammer of the gods” vocals and unbridled willingness to improvise.
He found himself duetting with the disciplined Krauss, known for her exquisite, note-perfect voice, and for being an artist who likes to rehearse until she gets it dead right.
Fourteen years on, they are back with their follow-up, Raise The Roof, again produced by T-Bone Burnett. It’s a worthy successor, exhibiting rare chemistry.
Aside from one original new song, the Zeppelin-tinged High And Lonesome, it gathers up blues, R&B and country covers as before but this time brings quintessentially British folk music into the mix.
All these years later, Plant picks up the theme of the pair’s different backgrounds — of opposites attracting. “Alison had her heroes and I had mine,” he says.
“I was playing for eight quid at The Starving Rascal in Dudley, singing very very shoddy Bo Diddley covers and falling in love three times a night.
“But that whizzbang bulls**t was not for Alison, who never went to a high school prom. I mean, she missed the whole lot.”
Krauss was a child prodigy, winning local contests around her home state of Illinois from the age of ten and landing her first record deal at 14.
“She was busy making sure she got the whole Clinch Mountain deal down,” says Plant.
‘Time for reflection’
By that, he means she learned authentic bluegrass by studying the doyen of the genre, banjo-wielding Ralph Stanley and his band The Clinch Mountain Boys, who took their name from a ridge in the Appalachians straddling Tennessee and Virginia.
“I’m humbled by her because she followed her passion,” says Plant. “Sometimes when we sing, we look at each other and don’t believe what we’re doing.”
Knowing the meticulous way Krauss usually operates in the studio (and on stage with her band Union Station), he recognises that together they have to leave their comfort zones.
“Quite often, I want aspects of a recording to be ragged,” he says. “I need it to have enough pull and push to sound as if humans are involved.
“Some of that (bluegrass) stuff is just so precise. The reason Alison likes to work with me is because I always tease her by saying, ‘You’ve left me for those bearded fat blokes you play with’.
“She replies, ‘But they’re magnificent’, and I tell her, ‘Yeah, yeah, of course they are — but they don’t wear leather trousers’.”
Krauss says Plant “keeps you on your toes. If someone changes a guitar part, he’s going to run with it and do the vocals differently.
“I’m like, ‘Woah, woah! Hold on! I’m supposed to be singing harmony here’.
“But whatever compromise comes through doing a duet, the magical thing is he stays himself and I stay myself. That’s why it works.”
Plant sees it like this: “I like the challenges of singing in a style that hasn’t always been my go-to place and I’m racking up some performances now.”
If you spend a little time with the pair and listen to their music, similarities between them do emerge.
For starters, they love to talk about their latest discoveries in roots music (and let’s not forget that both have flowing locks stretching well below their shoulders).
I’m meeting Plant in his usual haunt for these occasions, the upstairs room of his gastropub local near his London base.
The 73-year-old is looking well and in fine spirits despite a brush with Covid. “I had two jabs and then caught it,” he reports.
Was it bad? I venture. “No, but it gave me time for reflection that I could have done with earlier in life.”
Plant says the Raising Sand sequel arrives “a little late in the day” but explains that he hasn’t been twiddling his thumbs.
“I did three or four albums and toured everywhere from Texas to Timbuktu.
“The Space Shifters (his band) is such a magnificent group of guys. Once you get into the momentum, you can’t break it.”
Krauss, who turned 50 this year, is speaking via Zoom from country music capital Nashville, where she now lives.
She too has had to cope with the pandemic, but says that the past couple of years have been “pretty good for a serious homebody like me.
“My whole family is introverted,” she adds. “My parents were like, ‘Hey, we don’t have to go anywhere.” As with Plant, Krauss is thrilled to have finally nailed a second instalment of their fruitful collaboration.
She says: “We’d sent songs back and forth for years but between me recording and Robert recording, it never seemed like the natural time.”
Krauss recalls flagging up to Plant the insistent Can’t Let Go, originally recorded by Lucinda Williams, as far back as 2010.
But when they reconvened in 2019 for the first new sessions “it felt like no time had passed. It was very sweet for us to be sitting there with T-Bone and going through songs”.
Among the stellar musicians involved are guitarists Marc Ribot, who was on Raising Sand, Los Lobos veteran David Hidalgo, Bill Frisell and Buddy Miller.
Plant says: “So you get these virtuoso performances, which is also the reason I want to be around Alison.”
An added dimension is the two tracks he recommended from the golden age of British folk, Go Your Way (1971) by cult figure Anne Briggs and It Don’t Bother Me (1965) from the second solo album by Pentangle’s Bert Jansch.
When I tell Plant that Krauss thinks the first of these, featuring his sublime lead vocal, is her favourite track on Raise The Roof, he’s touched by her graciousness.
“She’s very diplomatic, I love her very much, one day we shouldn’t get married!” he affirms with only the last part of that sentence a joke.
In turn, Krauss elaborates on her impressions of Plant: “He’s a romantic soul and so well-read, always on the lookout for something beautiful.
I am humbled by Alison because she followed her passion
“When he was in Texas, he was enthralled by the history and the music. It’s a sweet longing for understanding.”
Plant returns the compliment when he considers her towering lead on It Don’t Bother Me from “its subdued introduction to the place it ends up. The way it builds and builds is magnificent,” he says.
The song felt “very natural” to Krauss. “It reminded me of bluegrass tunes I’d sung in the past and I loved the lyrics,” she says.
“I hurt my own feelings because I didn’t know of Bert Jansch or Anne Briggs! How could I live that long without them in my musical life?”
The same cannot be said of late country great Merle Haggard, explaining her choice of his Going Where The Lonely Go on Raise The Roof.
“That was the fourth song on the fourth CD of a boxset that I used to listen to all the time,” Krauss explains. “It comes from his Eighties period and I love how he sang.
“I have memories tied to when it came out, my real-time experience of Merle when I was a kid.”
Did she ever meet Merle? “Yeah, he was extremely laid back, as male as you could possibly get,” answers Krauss.
‘I cried myself to sleep over Diana Dors’
“Those guys from his era of country music had a certain manner. It must have been hard to walk around being that cool. He was so regal, quite a presence without being loud or gregarious.”
On Going Where The Lonely Go, Plant adds delicate harmonies and the song got him thinking about classic country music.
“When there’s great wordplay, it can be really, really good,” he decides, adding that he gets where Haggard’s wistful lyrics about loneliness are coming from.
“I understand that song. I cried myself to sleep a million times when I was 12 because I was in love with Diana Dors. I knew what it was like to be without Diana.”
Not so long after he got over his crush, teenage Plant was singing one of the songs on Raise The Roof, Searching For My Love, for the first time.
It was originally recorded in 1965 by Bobby Moore & The Rhythm Aces from America’s Deep South and, for Plant, it’s a slice of pure nostalgia, summoning memories from this side of the Atlantic.
“It goes back to the Lambretta, the mod cavalcade to Margate, the Whiskey A Go Go in Birmingham, the Twisted Wheel in Manchester,” he says, misty-eyed.
“I would guess it goes back to Twine Time by Alvin Cash and The Crawlers and all that stuff and it goes back to me and my little group opening the show for Lee Dorsey.”
New Orleans R&B star Dorsey came to Britain in the mid-Sixties on the back of two top ten hits, Working In The Coal Mine and Holy Cow, just as rock-star-in-the-making Plant was starting out.
Another song from the same scene, Trouble With My Lover, was suggested by Plant, but given to Krauss to sing lead.
“Alison’s vocal is incredible,” he says before explaining the song’s origins.
“It’s from an album by Betty Harris, The Lost Queen Of New Orleans Soul. The whole thing is insane.”
This brings us to Raise The Roof’s opening number, Quattro (World Drifts In), by Calexico, the Tuscon-based outfit fronted by Joey Burns and John Convertino.
Their brand of evocative, Mexican-influenced alt-rock makes for a dreamlike Plant/Krauss duet.
“Robert sent me the song and I made a CD with it on,” says Krauss. “I know exactly where I was when Calexico came on, at the stop sign a few blocks down from where I live.
“I thought, ‘Here we go, this should be the first song on our album’, and that’s what happened.”
Plant is in awe of Calexico’s atmospheric soundscapes and says: “You never know what’s coming out of the speakers next. In one album like Garden Ruin, they do what takes me ten years.”
He’s being too self-deprecating because his co-write with Burnett, High and Lonesome, arrived spontaneously and is great.
When I say it has a Led Zeppelin vibe, he responds with: “Well, I wrote 95 per cent of the (band’s) lyrics and melodies — that’s a clue!”
He continues: “We were doing this stuff in between tracks and T-Bone played some rhythm and I went, ‘Wait a minute!’ I flicked my lyric book round and there it all was, the story of my life in one easy song.”
The new original follows the inclusion on Raising Sand of Please Read The Letter, written by Plant and Led Zep mucker Jimmy Page.
“We got a Grammy for that, I must remind Jimmy,” he sighs. “He must have been pleased about it — I never heard from him.”
If relations with his old bandmate are cool, the same cannot be said of his performances with Alison Krauss.
With her at his side, the singer of Whole Lotta Love and Black Dog is still raising the roof.
ROBERT PLANT & ALISON KRAUSS
Raise The Roof
1. Quattro (World Drifts In)
2. The Price Of Love
3. Go Your Way
4. Trouble With My Lover
5. Searching For My Love
6. Can’t Let Go
7. It Don’t Bother Me
8. You Led Me To The Wrong
9. Last Kind Words Blues
10. High And Lonesome
11. Going Where The Lonely Go
12. Somebody Was Watching Over Me
‘Sandy and I did a freeform Led Zeppelin finale’
WHEN “it’s time to be emotional”, Robert Plant likes to do one of two things.
“I either watch Wolverhampton Wanderers go from two-nil down to beat Aston Villa,” says the superfan of the men in orange.
“Or I look at Fotheringay filmed at The Beat Club in 1970 with Sandy Denny singing John The Gun,” he adds, referring to the short-lived folk-rock group. “It’s absolutely incredible, beautiful and restrained.”
Today, we’re used to Plant’s vocals entwined with those of Alison Krauss but at the height of Led Zeppelin, only Denny joined him in song, and that was for just one track.
They performed The Battle Of Evermore on the celebrated fourth album, back in the limelight for its golden jubilee this month.
Plant says Evermore emerged from the weeks he and guitarist Jimmy Page spent “up in the Welsh hills” at a windswept cottage called Bron-Yr-Aur.
“I wrote those lyrics and they were so wordy,” he recalls. “But the song was a natural place for us to go with a great mandolin intro.
“I tried to do the whole lot myself and it was a real mess so I got Sandy to do the counter singing. Only at the end of the verses would we join each other and that was the nearest we got to harmony. What Sandy and I did was a spiralling, freeform finale.”
Denny died in 1978 aged just 31 but is regarded as one of the most sublime folk singers produced by the British Isles.
Plant believes they were cut from similar cloth. “She was every bit me as I was her. We’d visited all the same (folk music) shrines but I just wanted to sing about all sorts of other s**t too.”
He says Denny never understood just how good she was and it was the same with his great mate, John Bonham, who “took rock drumming to another place”.
I ask Plant if he thinks the band’s untitled 1971 album, complete with Stairway To Heaven, Rock And Roll and When The Levee Breaks, is peak Zeppelin.
“No, but it was a sonic revolution at Headley Grange where we had the right combination of sounds,” he replies.
“It was a case of finding the right place for the drum kit for that mind-warping experience of When The Levee Breaks.
“And for the great rawness of Rock And Roll with Stu (guest musician Ian Stewart) playing an out-of-tune piano leaning against the wall. It was probably on the fire two weeks later.”
Plant says they pushed on to even greater heights. “With Physical Graffiti, we took what began with Led Zeppelin IV and went further with Sick Again and The Wanton Song.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on release of new album Raise The Roof Source link Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on release of new album Raise The Roof