More than half a century since arriving to play his first show in the US with Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant was in the strange position of having to explain himself to the authorities.
“I had to prove that I was contributing to the betterment of the American system somehow, which is kind of cute, really,” Plant says of this post-lockdown trip to Nashville. He is sitting in the city’s famous Sound Emporium studio with his collaborator, the bluegrass legend Alison Krauss. It is the same place where they recorded their second, highly anticipated record as a duo, Raise the Roof, before the pandemic put the world on pause.
Due to various restrictions, Plant had to get special permission to get back into the country for this week of preparation and promotion; Krauss, he points out in a sarcastic huff, had to drive for only 10 minutes. “I had to present a form to Homeland Security and all that,” he says, sitting on a burgundy velvet couch in one of the facility’s dark, moody rooms. “Fifty-three years of coming here … they should have my number down by now.”
Raise the Roof, the follow-up to 2007’s much lauded debut LP Raising Sand, could have worked as Plant’s immigration application. Fourteen years in the making – as long as Led Zeppelin’s entire career – it is a sublime re-imagining of roots music traditions, from unsung English folk singers to modern torchbearers and lost blues gems. Highlights include a magical rework of the Everly Brothers’ Price of Love, which Krauss and Plant turn from harmonica-laced pop into a slow burning lament anchored in Krauss’ infinitely emotive vocals; an exquisite, melodically joyful version of Go Your Way by the early Led Zeppelin influence Anne Briggs; and High and Lonesome, an original written by Plant and their returning producer, T Bone Burnett.
It is a warm day and Plant has just got back to the studio on foot after grabbing a bite down the street. Nashville is a driver’s city, so the 1.85-metre (6ft 1in) musician, with his silver curls tossed loosely in a ponytail, would have surely been a roadside attraction to anyone cruising down Belmont Boulevard, were it not for the white mask obscuring his face. Krauss is cosied up on the couch in a quilted black jacket, despite the late summer weather, a box of tea stashed in her tote. When she talks, she grabs the mic nearby, as if by instinct.
The pair had tried several times to make a second record, but nothing had stuck: the title is as a nod to the jubilation they feel about finally getting the band back together. “You can’t wait 14 years to try to get it right and then put it under the couch and say: ‘Well, that was good,’” says Plant. “You’ve gotta shout it out and raise 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 burned CD – she is not au fait with making digital playlists – when the song Quattro (World Drifts In) came on at an intersection. “We’d send songs back and forth, and you might hear the same song at a different time and it didn’t have the right moment, for whatever reason,” Krauss says, “This one had such a sparkle on it. One song sets the mood for everything – and that was the song.” She texted Plant immediately. He, too, fell in love with the lyrics. Their version of the track opens the new record, just as the original opened up the record to them.
Plant is as fascinated by border stories as he is by tales from the American south. Calexico, named after the city where California and Mexico join, sing of immigrants fleeing everything they know for the dream of a better life. “Where they are living is what they are playing. It’s coming out of the ground,” Plant says of the band, now based in Tucson, Arizona.
Ever since he made Raising Sand in Nashville, Plant spotting has become urban lore in the city. There was the rumour that he lived in an apartment above an ice-cream shop in the east side; some people insisted they saw him eating dinner when he was supposed to be on tour. Plant seems to take to the place naturally, hanging out at a traditional country-themed night called Honky Tonk Tuesdays, grabbing a low-key Mexican breakfast at a place recommended by the musician Buddy Miller, or visiting a mural in Grimey’s record shop of John Prine, the late songwriter Plant described on social media as “the real wordsmith”. The last time he saw Prine, “he made some really funny John Prine comment about me being Frodo or Gollum”. The story cracks Krauss up.
The duo assembled some musicians from the Raising Sand sessions, including the guitarist Marc Ribot and the drummer Jay Bellerose, along with some new forces, such as Miller and the renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Burnett insisted that no one get acquainted with the song choices before entering the studio, to get “the freshest idea with the most life”, as Krauss puts it.
She remembers walking into the Sound Emporium for overdubs and seeing Ribot with a set of car keys, scratching them along his instrument – a long way from the traditions of bluegrass, but she loved it. On the previous record, Burnett would suddenly appear in a robe, brandishing a toy piano.
“They all have the combination of being so nuts and so tasteful at the same time,” Krauss says. “Shocking. It’s shocking.”
“See, I can’t buy into that,” Plant says, doubtful that nuts and tasteful could coexist, at least in the genre from which he emerged. “I’m British and a rock’n’roll singer.”
Plant and Krauss both enjoyed the exercise of trying to shake off who they have come to be – she the traditionalist, he the flamboyant frontman. “No decision was made other than lyric and melody,” Krauss says. The blues isn’t her default style, but she wears it well. Plant, meanwhile, tried not to go into character or default to comfortable vocal tricks and signatures, but there is one song on the album that – thankfully – is particularly Plant. While the title, High and Lonesome, conjures up images of early Hank Williams and tears on acoustic guitars, it is far more like Led Zeppelin than weepy acoustic country.
Even when outside their comfort zones, though, Krauss and Plant’s disparate worlds overlap perfectly. A previous interviewer, Krauss says, was determined to find out if they argue. “It was so funny, just: do you fight?” she says, chuckling. “Did any of you fight? Did T Bone fight?”
“We’re like Mork and Mindy,” says Plant: an odd yet harmonious couple.
They have proved that all musical traditions can meet in the middle if you dig back far enough. When Raising Sand came out in 2007, it was an outlier in a landscape entranced by watered down arena folk. Its songs, such as the blues singer Little Milton’s Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson and Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us by the alt rock singer Sam Phillips, served as a reminder that the roots of roots music were far more diverse than the emerging Americana genre might lead one to believe.
Raising Sand won five Grammys, including album of the year, beating Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends by Coldplay. The concept for Raise the Roof is the same, digging up unsung artists such as Louisiana’s Geeshie Wiley, as well as Plant’s more close-to-home influences, such as Briggs and Bert Jansch. Plant says with a laugh that when he plays their cover of Go Your Way for Briggs, “she’ll probably wag a finger at me about some stolen piece of timeless folk history purloined by some bloke with long hair and cowboy boots”.
He continues: “Alison and I have something – theoretically – to live up to, as far as how it worked out before. But the most important thing to do was maintain a really interesting variety of sources of song. Because what do we do in our quietest times, when we have a music machine? We go to places that really, really make us feel good.”
And who doesn’t want to feel good after months of lockdown and restrictions? Krauss recalls how, early on, she had trouble even listening to old bluegrass; similarly, Plant couldn’t hear new music – he spent the worst months of the pandemic pillaging his own archive, finding cassette recordings he plans to allow the release of only after his death. They promise that the next collaborative album – if there is another – won’t take so long, though. “I can’t wait 14 years,” says Plant, who is 73. “Otherwise it’s going to be a bit dicey for me.”
For now, he is enjoying this long detour. “None of this music is rock, it’s not about power and posture,” Plant says. “How remarkable for me to be able to jump ship so long ago now. But I have a jetpack on my back in case I want to go back.”
That person is still in there, after all. On the way out of the studio to meet Burnett and the musician JD McPherson across town, Plant stops and makes a joke about his “Viking finger”. “If I come from the land of the ice and snow,” he says, a bit of mischief firing in his eyes, “I’ll be OK.”