Okay, what genius decided to pair one of the great kings of British rock with America’s reigning queen of bluegrass? Who thought to match Robert Plant, he of the curling locks, searing vocals and very tight jeans, with Alison Krauss, she of the angelic voice, wholesome standard bearer of Mr. Monroe’s home-grown music and possessor of 20 Grammy awards? Well, it would appear the answer is Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – with the help of the brilliant producer, T Bone Burnett. When you think about it for a bit it starts to make sense. Both Plant and Krauss have pushed beyond the realm of their respective genres. Plant has been playing with Delta Blues and British folk elements for decades. Krauss’ wide range of collaborators includes Sting, Nickel Creek, Phish, James Taylor, and Dolly Parton. Sometimes the overt differences between people overshadow their commonalities.
Producer T Bone Burnett chose most of the songs for the record with an eye on challenging both performers, particularly Robert Plant. He learned to sing harmony vocals, something unheard of in his days with Led Zeppelin. Plant also mastered the fine art of nuanced vocals. Hearing Plant hold back on a note – one that he might have ripped through in the past – brings out a tenderness and vulnerability in his delivery not found in his earlier work. You’ll hear the difference on the Plant/Page composition “Please Read the Letter.” It also allows him to blend seamlessly with Krauss’ delicate vocals on the gorgeous rendition of “Killing the Blues.”
As for Krauss, Burnett has referred to her as uncompromising when it comes to her standards about traditional music. Krauss insisted on maintaining the integrity of classics songs. This meant interpreting the lyrics as written. Many of them are gender specific which left Krauss in the awkward position of singing from a man’s point of view. “Let Love Be Your Lesson” finds Krauss singing “Once I had a good woman.” What would Bill Monroe think?
Burnett’s choice of songs offers both singers the chance to experiment with new genres and both Krauss and Plant seem to relish the opportunity. What a joy - I’ve lived long enough to hear Plant’s voice accompanied by autoharp on the gospel ballad “Your Long Journey!” And Krauss’ dips into rockabilly with the Everly Brothers tune “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On) and takes on the Gypsy-styled ballad “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” a song written by Burnett’s ex-wife Sam Phillips.
Burnetts assembled a crack line-up of musicians to back Krauss and Plant. Marc Ribot plucks at banjos and lends his distinctive guitar sound. Legendary folk-picker Norman Blake, drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Dennis Crouch, and pedal steel player Greg Leisz also contribute. Burnett’s production is open and echoing, and creates a dark, ominous atmosphere for songs like “Fortune Teller” and “Polly Come Home.” There’s something about it that puts you in mind of recent work from Ry Cooder and Daniel Lanois. Burnett is a smart producer who knows that when given the chance to work with artists of this pedigree, the focus needs to be on the singers as they interpret the moods of each song. The instrumentation is there to compliment this delicate balance.
Raising Sand has grown into a phenomenon. Media outlets can’t get enough of the duo and can’t find enough superlatives to praise this record. I still marvel at the fact that Robert Plant has released music on the Rounder label. But mostly I marvel at the brilliance of this pairing.