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‘It’s Been a Frolic.” Robert Plant and Alison Krauss On Reuniting and Breaking Down Genre Walls

9 minute read

They make an unlikely pairing, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: The unkempt, howling Led Zeppelin frontman and the ever-composed regal bluegrass icon. “If you think about us in isolation 15 years ago, you would never imagine that we could get to this point,” Plant says over the phone, while Krauss laughs in the background. “I mean, she’s such a nice woman, to end up singing alongside a monster.”

And yet here they are, back together again. In 2007, they released the collaborative album Raising Sand, which was certified platinum and ended up winning five Grammys, including Album of the Year. On Nov. 19, they return with their second joint album, Raise the Roof, a collection of songs across country, rock, blues and Americana recorded right before the pandemic in 2020. The pair answered the phone from Nashville to talk about genre boundaries, Led Zeppelin joining TikTok and the enduring impact of “When the Levee Breaks.”

Robert, did you see that the singer-songwriter Margo Price dressed up as you for Halloween?

RP: No, how about that. Did she have the same attributes as I had at that time? Which me was it?

At Kezar Stadium in San Francisco in 1973, holding a dove.

RP: That old chestnut? I also had a cigarette and a bottle of Newcastle Brown. And none of that was staged, I have to say. Very, very strange moment. I once had a girlfriend who said that I had a kind of low hum that attracted animals and small children. Well, thank you, Margo, wherever you are. I hope she looked as good as I did then.

On your new collaborative record Raise the Roof, you cover musicians like Geeshie Wiley and the Everly Brothers. Do you feel like there are parts of American musical history that are in the process of being forgotten?

RP: I’m not out on the street, but I don’t think so. I shop at independent record stores. I know they’re not a great reflection of the great American public at large, but there’s a big interest in fringe and underground and alternative stuff. It’s small but it’s honest and strong. And I know there’s a healthy scene here in Nashville of music that isn’t just arena stuff or the obvious.

AK: There’s lots of new [sic] being made. But when you say the dangers of disappearing, we’re losing a lot of the first generation of the kind of music that I came from: There’s only a couple left. So we are getting further away from the genesis of something.

Are there qualities in older roots and country songs that are missing from the current pop canon?

RP: I don’t know anything about the pop canon, to be honest.

AK: Pop canon! Great band name.

RP: That, or a breakfast cereal.

AK: I like the simplicity and the timelessness of the songs on this record and from that era. There’s no current phrases or anything, and the way they phrased things was so beautiful. There’s a romance about their poetry.

Your duo is really a trio: T Bone Burnett has produced both of your records. How does he figure into your creative process?

AK: Without him, it would have been a very, very different record. When we first got together as a trio, the song choices that he brought really were the focal point of the kind of things that found their way to us since. That lyric quality and timelessness probably started with him.

RP: He’s quite enigmatic. It’s a really tough gig because everyone looks to the big guy in the room who will nod approval. Sometimes, we can meander on our own and get to the right place. But you kind of look for a third person, anyway, who will give you a little push, either towards “we’re coming along there” or “let’s think things through.”

While both of you move freely between genres, there have been many debates lately over what is and isn’t country music—most notably related to Lil Nas X and Kacey Musgraves. What do you make of those tensions?

RP: Are there genres just for charts, or just so the industry, whatever that term is, can decide who does what or where it fits? I know we’ve been in it. When Raising Sand had its ultimate zenith moment in the sun, what category were we in? I don’t know.

AK: It’s funny. The industry, they want you to be unique and different, and then they’re mad they can’t put you in a category.

RP: I was in a group called the Sensational Space Shifters and it was the same. ‘Where are we going to put them? Are they bluegrass?’ I think it’s absolute rubbish. If you go to the glorious days of the late ’60s—I don’t know whether there were Grammys then, I suppose there were—where did that leave people like Jefferson Airplane and stuff? Are they rock? No! What is going on?

Read more: Black Artists Helped Build Country Music—And Then It Left Them Behind

Led Zeppelin just joined TikTok, and videos tagged with Alison’s name on the app have 5 million views. Are you excited about the app’s impact on music?

RP: For me the jury’s out. It’s accessibility, isn’t it? I don’t want to sound like some tired old fart, some hippie languishing in the afterglow. But when we make these records, it’s a collection of songs. It’ll come as a bit of a surprise to some people who can’t even imagine that an artist would want to start at Track 1 and finish Track 12 and say, This is where we’re at. If you want quick blasts across the media by whatever engine can do that, that’s fine. But I’m not sure whether or not that’s what we set out to do.

But what did you say at the beginning—Led Zeppelin what?

Led Zeppelin has an official TikTok account.

RP: Well, thanks for telling me.

Alison, a couple years ago you were awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Trump. What did that honor mean to you?

AK: To be honored by the country that I grew up in, playing bluegrass music and being a musician, never thinking that I would do this for a living in the first place? An absolutely incredible honor.

The Led Zeppelin classic “When the Levee Breaks” was part of your setlists when you were on the road together. John Bonham’s intro drum break has been sampled in hip hop many times, including by the Beastie Boys, Beyoncé and Dr. Dre. What do you think of the way it’s traveled and its cultural impact?

RP: It ain’t cultural impact, for god’s sake. It’s just a really great drum sound, and the coolest sexy groove played by a wild man who was my brother. And it just happened to be recorded with such skill and magnificence, with about three microphones in a hallway in an old converted workhouse in Hampshire. That Headley Grange drum sound is the killer.

Nobody could do it like Bonzo could do it. He was just extraordinary. Whether he was driving through a hedge in his mother’s car with me sitting next to him, accidentally missing the turn, or whatever it was, we were kids who grew up and found some new shapes.

Robert, over the last couple years you’ve been embarking on a few archival projects of your own work, both in your Digging Deep podcast and the anthology album Subterranea. I’m wondering what you might have learned about yourself from those exercises?

RP: I don’t know; it’s an ongoing question. I won’t know the answer until I’m just about to croak. I’ve been flamboyant, ridiculous, sometimes self-deprecating. Most times, I should shut the f-ck up a bit more and let other people surmise. I haven’t learned anything, really, except for everything.

Robert, while accepting the Grammy for Best Album for Raising Sand in 2009, you said that Alison “taught me how to sing in straight lines instead of all that twirly stuff.” Are there still things about music that you two are learning from each other?

RP: No. the song remains the same. I’m pleased to tell you we keep the twirling to its correct position in the plan. [Alison laughs.] You can twirl now and again, but keep those harmonies non-twirly.

Do you have Grammy aspirations this time around?

RP: What category? Comedy, maybe. I don’t know. We never thought that we’d ever make a record together. The award for me is that I’m sitting in this room with this woman and we can make some great music together with some remarkable people. I know that sounds very contrite, but it’s true.

AK: We made something we’re all proud of. Just a really nice, enjoyable, inspired time.

RP: It’s been a frolic. It’s a shame that it’s fall and winter, because otherwise we could be skipping along the side of that river that winds through Tennessee. I’ve been canoeing there.

AK: The Harpeth.

RP: Yeah, the Harpeth. Skipping on the riverbank with flowers in our hair, daisy dancing, sitting under a tree playing a lyre and a lute. But the Grammys? I don’t know about that. I’ll have to buy some new clothes.

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