Their backgrounds couldn’t be any more different. Robert Plant, the frontman for Led Zeppelin and Hall of Fame inductee, is nothing short of a rock ‘n’ roll legend. Alison Krauss is a world class fiddler and a bluegrass artist that has probably lost count of how many Grammys she has won. But in 2004, when blues and folk icon Leadbelly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Plant and Krauss were given the perfect opportunity to connect.
A confessed longtime admirer of Krauss’ remarkable vocal prowess, the Englishman put out a call for the Illinois native to join him in performing a selection of Leadbelly tunes at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and American Music Masters’ Tribute to the band nearly four years ago. Plant had made a random call to Krauss a few years prior to express his admiration after hearing her work with Union Station album on UK radio. But it wasn’t until the Leadbelly event that the two were given an opportunity to collaborate.
“The minute I met Robert I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this will be fun,'” enthused Krauss during a conference call last week. “We were rehearsing in an Armenian dance hall that looked liked it hadn’t been touched in 40 or 50 years, and I walked into the room and saw this big pile of hairdo. We talked about Ralph Stanley and traveling through the Appalachian Mountains and how much he loved traditional music.”
While the Leadbelly material that the duo performed that night might not have been the perfect match for their respective vocal talents, the meeting succeeded in planting the collaborative seed in each of their minds. There was an undeniable chemistry between the pair, and they immediately started talking about the possibility of recording an album together. But long before songs or styles were considered, Plant and Krauss started thinking about finding the right producer.
“I knew it was an interesting personality match, and our voices did sound great together,” recalled Krauss. “And I was very taken by him and his personality and his excitement and interest in traditional music. Singing that Leadbelly stuff wasn’t in the right range for us, but I thought it would be a very interesting thing to look into. Whether it would work, we didn’t know until we got into the studio. And that’s where T-Bone came in later and really rounded it up.”
It was on Krauss’s recommendation that the pair enlisted the services of producer T-Bone Burnett. Having worked with everyone from Spinal Tap to Tony Bennett to Los Lobos, Burnett’s production resume was as broad as his intelligence and capabilities. Burnett brought in songs by Sam Phillips, The Everly Brothers, Tom Waits, and Townes Van Zandt, and the result was the platinum selling album, Raising Sand.
The record set an enviable standard for all involved, but it was an achievement that all three members of the ensemble were eager to top in the live setting. Alongside Burnett and an ensemble that includes country guitar maestro Buddy Miller, Plant and Krauss are now taking Raising Sand on the road. And even after spending so much time with the duo in the recording and rehearsal studios, it is an exercise that is still managing to challenge the usually unflappable band leader.
“We’re learning more all the time, I think – I certainly am,” confessed Burnett. “And I’m completely surprised by Robert’s singing on “Don’t Knock.” To hear him singing those gospel blues notes, those free type things – he’s not imitating anybody. They’re just coming right off him. And then I’m surprised by hearing Alison sing as hard as she’s singing on some of the tunes. That’s thrilling to just hear her sing that hard.”
While the undertaking has seemingly produced no shortage of surprises, it has also proven to be an educational experience for Plant and Krauss. One might expect that Plant’s rock ‘n’ roll roots and Krauss’s bluegrass heritage would result in a sonic meeting that landed somewhere in the middle of their respective genres. But rather than following a predefined path, the union has yielded a musical entity of its own design, which is something that clearly has Plant excited.
“It’s become quite an illumination really,” explained Plant. “What has been created with the chemistry between the three of us has its own kind of genre, really. I’m a very fortunate man. I couldn’t wish for anything better than this.”
While Plant has embraced the journey upon which he is being led, for Krauss it is more the experiences behind the project that are resonating with her. A renowned traditionalist, Krauss is relishing the opportunity to be stretched beyond her comfort zone.
“I’ve always been in a rather controlled environment and have worked with the same people forever,” admitted Krauss. “This has been interesting on so many levels – especially musically. The spontaneity of the show is a completely different animal than what I’m used to.”
The experience has been somewhat of an education for Plant too. In spending the majority of his musical career in bands that have featured a solitary vocalist, working with Krauss on Raising Sand has opened up a whole new world for Plant. And taking the vocally rich ensemble on the road has broadened that world even further.
“Singing in this revue is not easy,” confessed Plant. “In fact, it’s the most challenging event that I can remember because I’m working with other voices all the time. I never ever saw myself as somebody who could sing with anybody else ’cause every band I was in was based around black riffs. It was all about rhythm and angst until now. [But here] I’ve learnt that constraint and [minimal sounds] can be so much more effective.”
The Plant/Krauss tour will be rolling into Santa Barbara next Wednesday, June 25, after which the trio will then snake their way across the nation before winding up in Nashville by mid-July. And with so many post-tour options currently being suggested to the three main players, it seems that what comes next is anybody’s guess. But one thing is for sure: both Plant and Krauss are ready to see this union to rock through the ages.
“I’m in no hurry to go anywhere,” said Plant. “I want to stay very close. This is a front of knowledge, and I’m sticking as close to it as I can.”
As for Krauss? “We’re all having a wonderful time, and I think all three of us are hoping to continue this and that it will go on and on,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we’ve lost any love for who we’ve played for and play with. The guys in Union Station, that’s like home. So I hope to continue this and go back home, too.”
Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, and T-Bone Burnett will hit the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.) on Wednesday, June 25 at 7 p.m. Call 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com for tickets.