Shifting sands

It would take serious effort to miss all the buzz about the collaboration between Led Zeppelin’s front man (turned solo act) Robert Plant and Union Station front woman (turned producer) Alison Krauss. The unlikely duo’s Raising Sand (Rounder) dropped last fall and has been a subject of much philosophizing and rhetoric among music critics and fans of both the Zeppelin and Union Station camps. But if you think that a middle-of-the-road listener could escape this most novel of albums, you’d be mistaken.

Beautiful music together: Rocker Robert Plant and bluegrass diva Alison Krauss team up.

Before tickets for the tour went on sale, before topping the Rolling Stone 100 Best Songs of 2007 list, before the album was certified platinum, before the Grammy win for best pop collaboration with vocals, Plant and Krauss had seeped into the mainstream. Their achingly gorgeous “Killing the Blues” (originally recorded by John Prine) turned up in, of all places, a JCPenney TV spot—hardly the all-American sort of commercial airtime either artist ever mustered in their respective careers.

She loves rock ‘n’ roll

Fiddler Krauss once remarked during an Asheville concert that she doesn’t make hits (this was, of course, prior to O Brother, Where Art Thou?) but then again, she’s won more Grammys than any other female artist. Ever.

Plant, on the other hand, released 10 solo albums (1988’s Now and Zen went multiplatinum) as well as several collaborations with Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. Led Zeppelin topped charts, broke records for concert attendance, and during its ‘70s heyday, Rolling Stone magazine pointed out that the only challengers to the group’s “World’s Biggest Rock Band” bid were the Stones and The Who. Still, Zeppelin didn’t walk away with a Grammy until 2005—25 years after the band broke up—when they were honored with a lifetime achievement award.

So how, exactly, do these disparate paths lead us to Sand? The story goes: Krauss met Plant at a 2004 Lead Belly tribute show. (According to The Sunday Times: “Krauss recalls arriving at the Armenian dance hall in Cleveland where they rehearsed. ‘I knew [Plant’s] music, I knew what he’d achieved, and I remember thinking, ‘I wonder what in the world he’s like?’ …It was all dark in there, and, over in a corner, I see that hairdo. He was wearing glasses. He peered over his glasses at me and said, ‘Ah, there you are.’”) They talked then about working together. Krauss joked in a television interview that when that call from Plant finally came, her young son was sleeping, so even though she wanted to jump up and down, she could only respond with a subdued, “Sure, that sounds fine.” I’m paraphrasing, here. Plant, she said, thought she was giving him the brushoff.

Not quite. Even though Krauss is known for her pure voice and her sweetly country-tinged ballads, she’s never kept her grittier side a secret. Ten years ago she told Canoe, “I love Bad Company, Foreigner … I love hard rock. It’s just the greatest.”

But Sand is neither Krauss rocking out (personally, I was imagining an electric violin) nor Plant embracing his inner twang. The album, thanks largely to producer T-Bone Burnett, is a standalone effort—a rare case in which the end result is more than the sum of its parts.

“The second night of a new career”

“I have no idea how [Sand] will stand the test of time, but I think it is a pretty special offering,” says David Connor Jones, local music videographer and bassist in Zeppelin cover band Custard Pie (which, it’s worth noting, reuniting for a handful of shows this summer). “I was very impressed by how dreamy and romantic and haunting it all is. Even though all the tunes are covers—and I am a big fan of doing covers—they are all of a piece, and these collaborators really make these songs their own special thing.”

Early reviews of the tour suggest that Plant and Krauss with their band (led by Burnett) share a palpable chemistry. That, and the sheer magnitude of their combined talents, means they don’t just win over the crowd, they dominate the room. (“Krauss, backed by Plant, Buddy Miller and Stuart Duncan, soared through an a cappella version of ‘Down to the River to Pray,’ from O Brother, Where Art Thou? that was so beautiful it sucked the air out of the room,” wrote The Courier-Journal of Louisville; “Even the Led Zeppelin numbers such as ‘Black Dog’ were deconstructed and then reconstructed, T-Bone style,” claimed Chattanooga Times Free Press; and The Tennessean reported that Plant announced onstage, “This is the second night of a new career.”)

Just as Krauss has long admired stadium rock, Plant’s musical tastes have been inspired by a wide range of influences. Jones points to the British folk-psychedelic group Pentangle that greatly influenced Zeppelin. “I read somewhere that Jimmy Page was considering doing something entirely acoustic when The Yardbirds thing was winding down,” he notes. “I was watching a live Zeppelin show on DVD with [Custard Pie guitarist] Woody Wood and he pointed something out that was interesting to me, that confirms this intersection. They were doing an acoustic set and in the middle of the song, Jimmy Page starts doing ‘Black Mountain Rag.’ That is our neck of the woods. And of course, [Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist] John Paul Jones is out at MerleFest almost every year and is a big Appalachian music fan.”

Plant himself told CMT, “I knew about Don Gibson and all the great writers when I was a kid, but I got preoccupied for 30 years.” And during an interview with BBC News Breakfast Show, he said, “I completely underestimated how deep this music is—the hill music of America is absolutely stunning. It’s as blue as you get.”

For the love of it

But even as music-history buffs dig for the intersection of American roots music and British rock (the points of connection are arguably many), what is notable about Sand is less its fusion achievement and more its snowballing success. It’s a commercial revelation, a crossover hit and, behemoth buzz or not, it lives up to the hype.

“Too often in recorded music now, you get two people who are forced together because somebody somewhere thinks it would be a commercially successful pairing,” explains CMT’s senior vice president of music strategies, Jay Frank. Take Sting and Mary J. Blige, or Travis Tritt with Lucy Woodward. But of Plant and Krauss he says, “A lot of the collaboration is born out of two musical souls finding a common ground that was not expected, and they just ran with it.”

He adds, “One of the reasons why this has been so successful and refreshing is because these are two musicians who are both at the relative top of their genres and they don’t have to do anything. They found a common ground and something that sparked them creatively. T-Bone helped coalesce that. You put all that together and you have people doing it for the love and joy of doing it as opposed to any need of having to do it.”

As Jones mentions, Sand is a collection of covers, none of which would have been an apparent fit for either Plant or Krauss. And yet the songs and the singers combine with delicious ease. The video for “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On),” an Everly Brothers classic, moved into high rotation on VH1 last December. There are tracks by Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt and Sam Phillips, all unfamiliar enough that with the Plant-Krauss-Burnett treatment, they ring fresh—a rare accomplishment for a cover album. And, as such, Sand is reaching not just bluegrass fans and rock fans, but also, according to Frank, “the current country-music fan steeped in Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban” along with “a more cultured general audience” made up neither of Krauss nor Plant supporters as such, but who have been swept up in the Internet-generated excitement propelling the album and the tour.

Next generation

Sharon Little, an up-and-coming soul-pop artist opening for the duo’s U.S. tour dates, is possibly the most excited of all. Her just-released debut, Perfect Time for a Breakdown, was hand-delivered to Burnett by Larry Jenkins, head of CBS Records (who also just happens to be Burnett’s manager). Once Burnett, Plant and Krauss had signed off on Little, she got the gig. “What I am excited about is that I was chosen by the artists themselves,” she wrote on her MySpace blog. “For whatever happens … Robert Plant and Alison Krauss listened to my CD.”

To Xpress she admits, “It’s a pretty hot tour.”

In January, Little was working as a waitress. By April, she was opening shows for Plant and Krauss, her profile skyrocketing overnight. “My career is on speed right now,” she jokes, but the success of Sand has affected her not just vocationally, but artistically. While she describes her own record as “a little edgier so I could grab people,” she wants her next album to borrow elements from Sand.

“It’s a moody, swampy vibe that I like a lot,” she says.

While Little does her best to keep a level head, she can’t help but be moved by the magnitude of the act she precedes on stage. “On the first night of the tour, I met Alison Krauss. I started crying,” the musician recalls. “That night, after the show, I went downstairs and had a glass of wine with Robert and T-Bone. I kept thinking, ‘I’m talking to Robert Plant; we’re drinking wine together.’”

Like Little, audiences and critics are having a hard time getting over the star prowess of Sand‘s collaborators. The novelty of it, the on-stage romance, the lush mingling of Plant’s and Krauss’ distinct vocal stylings and the tangible cool of the song selections provide ostensible glitter. But in the end, this is an effort that transcends cool and glitter and celebrity. It exceeds rock and bluegrass and fusion. Sure, there are murmurs about a continued Plant-Krauss partnership and a next album, but even those projections ultimately amount to little. This may be history in the making, but Sand is neither about what has been or what’s to come—and that’s what makes it so good.

who: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (Sharon Little opens)
what: Led Zeppelin legend meets bluegrass royalty for American roots retrospective
where: Asheville Civic Center
when: Saturday, June 14. (8 p.m. $45, $55 and $68. or 251-5505)

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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8 thoughts on “Shifting sands

  1. Don Whitmire

    Great show. I was not sure what to expect but it was amazing to see the mixture of rock and country mesh so well.

  2. Dionysis

    “the mixture of rock and country mesh so well.”

    Rock and country have mixed well historically; go back to bands like Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, Poco and the excellent but obscure Nashville band Area Code 615, as well as people like the late Gram Parsons.
    Not having seen the show, my question is: how well does one of the best voices on the planet (maybe the best), Alison Krause, mix with one of the most mediocre, over-hyped voices on the planet (Robert Plant)?

  3. Dionysis

    “Dionysis, go see the show and you will find out.”

    Wish I could, but it’s too late now. Perhaps a concert DVD will be released of their collaboration soon. I would imagine that the live show is a lot better than their recent CD.

  4. laura hammond

    I really hope robert plant and alison krauss do another cd togather.they are great togather.the chemistry is awsume.there is so much engery between the two beautifull people.come on you two and do it again.

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