More than half a century since he arrived to play his first show in the US with Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant was in the strange position of declaring himself to the authorities.
“I had to prove that I was contributing to the improvement of the American system somehow, which is nice, really,” the plant says of this post-lockdown trip to Nashville. He sits in the city’s famous Sound Emporium Studio with his collaborator, Bluegrass legend Alison Krauss. It’s the same place where they recorded their second, highly anticipated record as a duo, Open the roof, before the pandemic put the world on pause.
Due to various restrictions, the plant had to get a special permit to return to the country for this week of preparation and promotion; Krauss, he points out in a sarcastic huff, had to drive just 10 minutes. “I had to present a form of Homeland Security and all that,” he says, sitting on a burgundy velvet velvet couch in one of the dark, quiet rooms of the facility. “Thirty fifty years to get here … they should have my number now.”
Raise the Roof, the sequel to the 2007 highly acclaimed debut LP Increase sand, would have worked as a plant immigration application. Fourteen years in the making — as long as Led Zeppelin’s entire career — it is a sublime representation of root music traditions, from unsung English folk singers to modern torchbearers and lost blues pearls. Highlights include a magical reworking of the Everly Brothers ‘Prize of Love, which anchors Krauss and Plant of Accordion-laced Pop in a slow-burning lament and Krauss’ infinitely emotional singing; an exquisite, melodic delightful version of Go Your Way by early Led Zeppelin influencer Anne Briggs; and High and Lonesome, an original written by the plant and written by their returning producer, T Bone Burnett.
It’s a hot day and Plant has just walked back into the studio after catching a bite on the street. Nashville is a chauffeur town, so the 1.85 meter (6ft 1in) musician, with his silver curls loosely tossed in a ponytail, would surely be a street attraction for anyone walking down Belmont Boulevard, were it not for the white mask covering his face has hidden. Krauss was trapped on the couch in a quilted black jacket, despite the late summer weather, a box of tea stuck in her tote. When she speaks, she holds the microphone in the area, as if by instinct.
The pair had tried to make a second record several times, but nothing stuck: the title is like a nod to the jubilee they feel when they finally get the band back together. “You can’t wait 14 years to try to get it right and then lie down on the couch and say,‘ Well, that was good, ’” the plant says. “You have to call it quits and get up on the roof.”
It was a song by the Americana band Calexico that finally broke the creative barrier. Krauss was driving in Nashville, listening to a burnt CD – she’s not capable of making digital playlists – when the song Quattro (World Drifts In) came to an intersection. “We would send songs back and forth, and you might hear the same song at a different time and it did not have the right moment, for whatever reason,” says Krauss, “this one had such a shine. A song sets d ‘Mood for everything – and that was the song. She sent the plant straight away. He’s also in love with the lyrics. Her version of the track opens the new record, just as the original opened the record for them.
The plant is as fascinated by frontier stories as it is by stories from the American South. Calexico, named after the city where California and Mexico join, sings of immigrants fleeing all they know for the dream of a better life. “Where they live is what they play. It comes from the ground up,” says the band’s plant, now based in Tucson, Arizona.
Since he made Raising Sandin Nashville, Plant Spotting has become urban lore in the city. There was the rumor that he lived in an apartment over an ice rink on the east side; some people pointed out that they saw him eating when he was supposed to be on tour. The plant seems to take place naturally, hangs out in a traditional country-themed night called Honky Tonk on Tuesdays, picks up a low-Mexican breakfast at a venue recommended by musician Buddy Miller, or visits a wall mural at Grimey’s record business of John Prine, describes the late songwriter Plant on social media as “The Right Words”. The last time he saw Prine, “he made a really funny John Prine comment about me being Frodo or Gollum”. The story scratches the cross.
The duo has put together some musicians from Raising SandSessions, including guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Jay Bellerose, along with some new forces, such as Miller and renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Burnett insisted no one was familiar with the song choices before entering the studio to get “the freshest idea with the most life,” as Krauss puts it.
She remembers the Sound Emporium going overboard and seeing the Ribot with a series of car keys, scratching it past its instrument – a long way from the traditions of the Bluegrass, but she loved it. On the previous record, Burnett suddenly appears in a coat, and brings a playing piano.
“They all have the combination of being so nutritious and so delicious at the same time,” Krauss says. “Shocking. It’s shocking. “
“Look, I can not indulge in it,” says the plant, doubting that nuts and flavors can coexist, at least in the genre from which he came. “I’m a British and a Rock’n’Roll singer.”
Plant and Krauss both enjoyed the exercise of trying to keep track of who they were – they are the traditionalist, he the flamboyant frontman. “No decision was made other than lyrics and melody,” Krauss says. The blues is not her standard style, but she likes it. Plant, meanwhile, has not tried to go into character or standard on comfortable vocals and signatures, but there is one song on the album that is – thankfully – particularly plant. While the title, High and Lonesome, evokes images of early Hank Williams and tears on acoustic guitars, it’s much more like Led Zeppelin than our acoustic land.
Even outside of their comfort zones, however, Krauss and Plant’s disparate worlds perfectly overlap. A former interviewer, Krauss says, was determined to find out if they were arguing. “It was so funny, just: are you fighting?” she says, laughing. “Did any of you fight? Did T Bone fight?
“We’re like Mork and Mindy,” Plant says: a strange but harmonious couple.
They have proven that all musical traditions can meet in the middle if you go far enough back. When Raising Sand came out in 2007, it was a look into a landscape enchanted by watered-down arena folk. His songs, such as blues singer Little Milton’s Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson and sister Rosetta Goes Before Us by old rock singer Sam Phillips, served as a reminder that the roots of root music were far more diverse than the emerging Americana genre. one they believe.
Raising Sand won five Grammy Awards, including the album of the year, which beat Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Viva la Vida or Coldplay’s Death and All His Friends. The concept for Raise the Roof is the same, grabbing unsung artists like Louisiana Geeshie Wiley, as well as plant closer to home influences, such as Briggs and Bert Jansch. The plant says with a laugh that when he plays her cover of Go Your Way for Briggs, “she will wiggle a finger on me over a stolen piece of timeless folk tale purloined by some blouse with long hair and cowboy boots.”
He goes on to say, “Alison and I have something – theoretically – to experience, as far as it goes before. But the most important thing to do was to get a really interesting variety of song sources. Because what do we do in our quietest?” Times when we have a music machine? We go to places that make us feel really good. “
And who does not want to feel good after months of blocking and restricting? Krauss recalls how early she had trouble even listening to old bluegrass; similarly, the plant could not hear any new music – he spent the worst months of the pandemic and moved his own archive, found cassette recordings, which he plans to release only after his death. They promise that the next collaborative album – if there is another – will not last that long though. “I can’t wait 14 years,” says the plant, who is 73. “Otherwise, it gets a little dicey for me.”
For the moment, he enjoys this long detour. “None of this music is rock, it’s not about strength and attitude,” Plant says. “How remarkable for me to jump in front of the ship for so long now. But I have a jetpack on my back in case I want to go back.
That person is still there. On his way out of the studio to meet Burnett and musician JD McPherson through town, the plant stops and makes a joke about his “Viking finger.” “When I come out of the land of ice and snow,” he says, shooting a little abuse into my eyes, “I’ll be ok.”