‘It’s Been a Frolic.” Robert Plant and Alison Krauss On Reuniting and Breaking Down Genre Walls
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss make an odd pairing: the unkempt and howling Led Zeppelin frontman, and the ever-composed, regal bluegrass legend. “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.”
They are back, and they will be together again. The collaborative album was released in 2007 by the two of them. Raising SandThe album was later certified platinum, and won five Grammys including Album of Year. They will be releasing their second album together on Nov. 19. Lift the RoofA collection of Americana songs, including country and blues tracks, was created right before the 2020 pandemic. 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, were you able to see Margo Price dressing up for Halloween as Margo?
RP:It’s not possible. Were her attributes the same ones as mine? Who was that me?
In 1973, a dove was held at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium..
RP:The old chestnut. Also, I had a cigarette as well as a bottle Newcastle Brown. It was not staged. It was a very, very odd moment. A girlfriend once said to me that my low hum attracted animals, especially small children. Margo, I’m glad you were there. She looked just as beautiful as me.
On your new collaborative record Lift the RoofCover musicians like Geeshie Willey and Everly Brothers. Is there any American musical history in danger of becoming 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. We are moving further from the original idea of something.
Is there something missing in the pop music of today that isn’t found in old country and roots songs?
RP: I don’t know anything about the pop canon, to be honest.
AK:You can’t go wrong with pop music! A great band name.
RP:Or, a breakfast cereal.
AK:The simplicity and timelessness of these songs and others from the era appeal to me. There’s no current phrases or anything, and the way they phrased things was so beautiful. There’s a romance about their poetry.
T Bone Burnett is the producer of both your records. Is he part of your creative process, or not?
AK:It would have been very different without him. The song selections he made when we were first a group of three musicians was the defining point of what has happened to us ever since. He probably began that lyric quality, and the timelessness.
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. We can sometimes wander on our own to get to the correct 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. How do you feel about these tensions?
RP:Is it just to make charts or so that the industry (whatever its term may be) can determine who or where it belongs? I know we’ve been in it. It’s a great place to be. Raising SandDid it reach its zenith in the sun? In which category did we fall? 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: It was the same as the SensationalSpace Shifters. ‘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? They are rock! No! Is there something else going on?
Learn 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 is a TikTok member.
RP:Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Alison, you received the National Medal of the Arts from President Trump a few years back. Was that an honor?
AK: It was an honor to be recognized by my country, which I grew up playing bluegrass music and being musician. I never thought I’d do it for a living. This is an amazing 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. This recording was done with just three microphones placed in a hallway of an old, converted workhouse.Hampshire. Headley Grange’s drum sound is legendary.
Bonzo did it better than anyone else. Bonzo was 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. It’s usually best for me to shut down a little and let others judge. I haven’t learned anything, really, except for everything.
Robert accepts the Grammy Award for Best Album 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 is the same. I’m pleased to tell you we keep the twirling to its correct position in the plan. [Alison laughs.]While you can do a little bit of twirling from time to time, keep your harmonies simple.
Are you a Grammy-aspirer?
RP:Is it comedy? 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. This was an enjoyable and inspirational 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.
RP:Yes, Harpeth. Daisy dancing and skipping along the riverbank, flowers in our hair Sitting under a tree, playing a guitar and a liner. However, the Grammys? I don’t know about that. I’ll have to buy some new clothes.