The instrument you play without touching it
How friendly experiments led Robert Plant and Alison Krauss to record ‘Raise the Roof’
Judy Woodruff: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, with over 40 Grammy's between them, have teamed up again for a new album, with plans to tour internationally, for the first time in 12 years.
Jeffrey Brown went to Nashville to talk about the magic behind the music-making as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: A visit to Sound Emporium, one of Nashville's most renowned recording studios, where Alison Krauss and Robert Plant recorded their new album, "Raise the Roof," and, on this day, got to admire the cover for the first time.
It's a musical marriage of two legendary voices from two very different worlds.
Alison Krauss, Musician: Where I come from, the blend is what you're always going for. You know, every -- you try to match how you say your vowels to have it be one voice is the goal. And this is the complete opposite.
Robert Plant, Musician: From a vocalist's point of view, at the sharp end of the various kinds of adventures I have had, the whole thing is about just go, and we will worry about it later.
Jeffrey Brown: He, now 73, is rock 'n' roll royalty, the quintessential howler and bare-chested British growler as lead singer for Led Zeppelin.
He's long since established a solo career and, in a 2017 conversation, told me how he learned to keep, but temper the energy of his youth.
Robert Plant: Same thing, but it's bridled. It's contained more. It's a good place to go, and it's a bit of a surprise.
Jeffrey Brown: She, 50, has long been one of the biggest figures in bluegrass, known for her gorgeous voice and multiple-part harmonies.
I'd first met Krauss with her band Union Station in 2002, when they were part of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" phenomenon, a major moment for bluegrass.
Alison Krauss: We have walked into some of these places and gone, who's playing here tonight?
Alison Krauss: You know, because it's been a bit of a shock to see this kind of -- these numbers of people coming out to see this music.
Jeffrey Brown: In 2007, Krauss and Plant recorded together, an offbeat pairing that became an unexpected hit. Their album "Raising Sand" sold more than a million copies and won five Grammys, including Album of the Year.
And it all began with four songs recorded right here as a friendly experiment.
I'm assuming it was a surprise, a shock?
Robert Plant: In this very room, we were shocked.
Jeffrey Brown: You were shocked?
Robert Plant: Yes.
Alison Krauss: I mean, there wasn't any expectation about any of it. You know, like, hey, if this is fun, let's do this. And if we enjoy it, let's keep going.
Robert Plant: We had to go to a place musically that would challenge me and would challenge Alison. The two of us needed to find news paths to something where it's a gamble, and it's also incredibly stimulating and quite frightening.
Jeffrey Brown: Their musical collaborator and ultimate guide, T Bone Burnett, producer extraordinaire, the man behind so many hit albums for numerous musical stars.
Alison Krauss: When T Bone got involved, we knew that all bets were off as far as what we were going to expect then.
Jeffrey Brown: Krauss, Plant and Burnett are together again, backed by a group of all-star musicians, for "Raise the Roof." And, again, they have found and remade songs across several genres, here, "Can't Let Go," written by Randy Weeks, first recorded by Lucinda Williams.
You're coming from the close harmonies, right, where you sort of have to stick to the plan?
Alison Krauss: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: That's not him exactly, I don't...
Alison Krauss: No, that is not him.
Jeffrey Brown: No?
Alison Krauss: That's not him at all.
Jeffrey Brown: So, how was that? Well, how was that for you?
Alison Krauss: Well...
Robert Plant: Painful.
Alison Krauss: Some of it. Yes, I mean, the way you grow up singing in bluegrass, it's very regimented and planned out, because you're always singing harmony.
You kind of -- I always make a joke. You didn't have any other life because you were just singing harmony all the time, trying to perfect that to make it sound like one voice. And his whole life of music is always off the cuff. And I always say it was a bit like hanging off the edge of a cliff, trying to match him and try to predict where he's going.
Robert Plant: But when we play live, that kind of wondering, then we get going, and we're standing side by side singing. And I'm looking at Alison she's looking at me, and she's going, where are you going to go?
And it's sort of eyebrows up, let's go, and off we go somewhere that neither of us had planned.
Jeffrey Brown: Plant says he enjoys that sense of danger.
Robert Plant: I'm singing alongside a singer who expresses herself in a totally different way. And so, for me, the adventure is everything to get it. And to be free to fail and to able to walk away is crucial.
Jeffrey Brown: The original version of "The Price of Love" written and recorded by The Everly Brothers in 1966 surrounds its painful lyrics with upbeat pop energy. Now it's something else.
Robert Plant: You make it lustrous and perhaps a little more occasionally vague, sometimes more dramatic. So, yes, "The Price of Love" is a great pop song. But, by the time these guys have finished with it, it was like I'm frightened.
Jeffrey Brown: It's a haunting song all of a sudden, right? Yes.
Robert Plant: Yes. And now I'm really worried about falling in love again.
Alison Krauss: Oh, I loved how "Price of Love 'turned out too. I thought that was beautiful, you know, The Everly Brothers especially in that time, such terrible, sad, heartbreaking lyrics, along with a really happy melody.
And I think the way we presented that, it really uncovered the lyric.
Jeffrey Brown: Uncovered means what?
Alison Krauss: It kind of takes the -- it brings the focus out a little more of that part of it.
Jeffrey Brown: Call it a different kind of harmony from different styles, even in how they approach recording a song in the studio.
Alison Krauss: I like to wear it out in the studio. I like to wear it out, sing it a million times.
Robert Plant: You like to wear it out. I like to think that, by take three, it's all done, can't do any better than that, because I really mean it up until about take four.
Jeffrey Brown: By take four, you have got it. And you're ready to...
Robert Plant: No, no, I haven't got it, but I think I have got it.
Jeffrey Brown: You think -- OK.
Jeffrey Brown: And somehow, indeed, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss together have got it.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at Sound Emporium in Nashville.
Judy Woodruff: Winging it and making magic at the same time.