From its embryonic, conceptual stages – well before any music materialized – the mere idea of Raising Sand held infinite fascination for both its creators and those around them. As word spread of an impending musical collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, imaginations ran wild. Two artists, each at the pinnacle of their respective pantheons, Robert and Alison have seemingly little in common. But just below the surface, an elemental understanding flowed between them, waiting to be tapped…
Mutual admirers for some time, Plant and Krauss first performed together at a concert celebrating the music of Leadbelly. That great man’s sound – spry and playful, yet marked by an undercurrent of torment and loss – is a keyhole into the sound world unlocked on Raising Sand. After their initial collaboration proved promising, Plant and Krauss brought producer T Bone Burnett into the fold to help them investigate a more sustained, full-scale project. Charged with selecting both supporting musicians and material that would illuminate the connection between these two unique artists, Burnett succeeded wondrously. Built on a shared core of modal blues and country soul, filtered through alternating layers of unadorned tenderness and thick, shifting textures, the sounds on Raising Sand extend well beyond anyone’s expectations.
It all began quietly, in Alison’s Nashville home. Sitting side by side, with Burnett quietly lining out chord changes on guitar, Plant and Krauss sang. There were no microphones, no effects – nothing to hide behind or escape into. “The idea was to take them both out of their comfort zone,” Burnett reflects. “To take us all out of our comfort zones.” As one of the finest harmony singers in any style of music, Krauss worked carefully with Plant to develop a blend, telepathically following the contours of his phrasing. New to such intensive two-part harmony, Plant pared down his vocal style to its most basic components – resulting in some of the most affecting, soulful singing he has yet captured on tape. “I don’t get nervous really,” Plant said of those early sessions. “But I realized once I started sitting down on that couch, I was in for a ride.” As they grew more comfortable with the songs and the way their voices complimented one another, they stepped into the studio….
Burnett had assembled an intriguing group of musicians, with a core of guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Dennis Crouch, and drummer Jay Bellerose occasionally augmented by guitarist Norman Blake and multi-instrumentalist Mike Seeger. Caution and trepidation gave way to an amazingly fruitful run of sessions, spanning only ten days but resulting in almost the entire album. Burnett nurtured the music endlessly, encouraging the musicians to disregard the past and simply play the songs their way. The sound gelled quickly, as a roomful of strangers became an empathetic, organically telepathic band in a matter of hours.
And the music? The combination of Krauss’s silken interpretation of American roots forms with Plant’s defiantly, globally-informed mélange could have turned down any number of sonic byways. Yet Burnett’s relentless focus and the selfless dedication of the two principals has resulted in an album that defies genres in favor of a wide open brand of seismic soul music. Pitched three steps beyond some cosmic collision of early urban blues, spacious West Texas country, and the unrealized potential of the folk-rock revolution, Raising Sand is shockingly evocative – an album that uncovers popular music’s elemental roots while sounding effortlessly, breathtakingly modern.
The material selected by T Bone is the fulcrum on which Plant and Krauss’s delicately disarming harmonies balance and pivot gracefully. Roly Salley’s underground folk gem “Killing the Blues” is as bittersweetly chilling as a grunge rockabilly race through the Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone” is invigorating. Psychedelic country-rock lightening rod Gene Clark is tapped twice: once for Krauss’s devastating treatment of “Through the Morning, Through the Night” and again for “Polly,” delivered tenderly by Plant with a dreamy harmony from Krauss emerging in the second verse. Surprises abound, from a darkly grooving take on Brit-beat standard “Fortune Teller” to the closing “Long Journey,” a timeless country standard beautifully performed in a strict, solemn Carter Family style.
Upon release, the immediate and vociferously positive reaction from fans and media alike made it clear that Raising Sand proved to be a risk worth taking. The album’s praises were sung in such major publications as Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Mojo, No Depression, People, USA Today, and innumerable others, and the duo gave a dynamic performance on NBC’s Today Show. In its first week, Raising Sand was the second best selling album in the US. It was certified Gold by late November, 2007, and is well on its way to Platinum status.
A staple of critics’ year-end top ten surveys, Raising Sand topped lists in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Sunday Times (UK), and placed highly in many more outlets. Country Music Television (CMT) was an immediate supporter, giving priority rotation to the first single, “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” and taping an episode of their popular program “Crossroads” featuring the pair. This episode will debut in February 2008 and will be shown several times throughout the year. Rather than let their fruitful collaboration end with Raising Sand, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss will be touring the US and Europe with many of the musicians featured on the album in spring of 2008.
As much as Raising Sand is a revelation for the listener, the artists involved were even more profoundly affected. “When we got seventy-five percent of the way down the line,” Plant explains, “I realized we’d created something that I could never have dreamt of.” Krauss shares his enthusiasm and wonder. “There’s so much romance in contrast,” she summarizes. “It was a real life-changing experience.”