Album Of The Year: Raising Sand (2009)

With the 2022 Grammys coming up, I’ve decided to take a look back and review the albums that have won the Album of the Year award. Some of these albums have already been covered or will be covered in the Best Sellers so I won’t be touching those. I’ll be doing as much of these as I can of these until the Grammys on January 31st.

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Robert Plant is an artist that doesn’t need to record new music. As the singer of Led Zeppelin, Plant helped to define the image of the rock frontman with his band selling a shit ton of records with a bunch of classics that live on in classic rock rotation. After Zeppelin broke up in 1980, it’d be easy for Plant to continue living off past glories performing Zeppelin tunes until the day he dies. But that’s not what Plant is about. In interviews, Plant doesn’t sound all that concerned about his Led Zeppelin legacy and has a very restless spirit about his music going wherever it leads him even if it’s recording a bluegrass album with one of the reigning names of that genre, a woman who was born only a few months before Zeppelin released their fourth album.

The partnership begins in 2004 when Plant performed with Alison Krauss at a tribute concert for the folk artist Lead Belly. Krauss had been a big name in the bluegrass/country fields since her teenage years in the ‘80s often recording with her backing band the Union Station. Together, they helped to bring bluegrass to a wider audience most notably through their involvement on the best-selling soundtrack to the 2000 Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou. The soundtrack became a big enough phenomenon to win Album of the Year at the 2002 Grammys so Krauss had already gotten wider recognition by the time she and Robert Plant met. 

Plant turned out to be a big fan of Krauss and after getting to know each other more decided to work on music together with T Bone Burnett, the producer behind the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack on board to produce what would be Raising Sand. It was Burnett who set the tone for the album picking much of the songs which are covers of less than famous songs by artists as big as the Everly Brothers and Gene Clark of the Byrds. They even use songs of their own most notably with “Please Read The Letter” a song Plant wrote along with Jimmy Page in 1998 for a collaboration album.

If you remember the album when it came out, you probably wondered why the rock god of Led Zeppelin would make an album with one of the biggest bluegrass stars and what it would even sound like. While on paper this pairing seemed like an odd fit, when you listen to Raising Sand you’ll realize it makes its own kind of sense. While Plant is mainly remembered for his high piercing vocals from Led Zeppelin on their most hard-rocking tracks, the group also incorporated a lot of rustic folk influences into their music and Plant showed then he could adapt to that type of music long before Alison Krauss. For Plant, singing bluegrass with Alison Krauss wasn’t all that daunting as many think it would have been.

Plant and Krauss wound up proving themselves to be an effective singing partnership on Raising Sand. Both of them sound relatively comfortable together with Krauss in her comfort zone but Plant can hold his own here not sounding like he’s playing catch up to her. Approaching 60 at the time of recording, Plant was obviously not going to be able to recapture his vocal glory from Led Zeppelin but with his aging voice adapts well to the folkier bluegrass sounds. He can still bring a rocking intensity but most of the time on Raising Sand he goes for a more weary and understated delivery to match with the tracks. It’s the kind of thing that works on a song like “Please Read The Letter” where Plant’s older sounding voice combined with Krauss’ sweet harmony makes for a great combination with the downtempo production. I also like how Krauss’ voice can be beautiful yet haunting especially on a track like “Trampled Rose.”

For what it is, Raising Sand is a pretty solid album. Burnett’s production does a good job at replicating old-time country and bluegrass sounds in a late ‘00s context with all the pedal steels, fiddles, and guitar sounds present. I especially like tracks such as “Rich Woman” and “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)” with the more rocking feel both songs have. “Gone, Gone, Gone” especially sounds more like an updated take on ‘50s rockabilly than bluegrass and that’s good with me. 

If there’s one issue I have with Raising Sand is that I get the same kind of reactions that I get for all these kinds of middlebrow albums. It’s definitely fine but it’s not something that I would say I would go back to or listen to all the time. It’s an album meant for older listeners which I am not yet and listeners of a very specific genre one that I don’t have much experience in. There are lots of good things to like here from the music to the performances and as a Led Zeppelin fan it’s nice to hear Robert Plant but overall Raising Sand to me is nice and pleasant to listen to but not much more than that. 

On the Billboard album charts, Raising Sand did make an impact debuting up at #2 after its October 2007 release. But that doesn’t mean it was a huge phenomenon as it sold only 112,000 copies in that first week. It wasn’t until March 2008 when the album was certified platinum, a distinction it still holds. It wound up going back to #2 on the chart the week after its Grammy wins. Plant and Krauss capitalized on the album by staging a successful tour with one news clip I found from the time showing a couple who wanted to see Plant get back with Led Zeppelin especially after their recent reunion show in London but were happy making due with a Plant and Krauss show. That reaction tells me something about the album’s appeal. Sure, the country and bluegrass audiences were happy to support Krauss but its greater exposure probably had to do with Plant and the classic rock audience who remember him from Led Zeppelin that may not have bought a bluegrass album otherwise.

Raising Sand was not exactly an album of the moment but regardless it wound up being the big winner at the 2009 Grammys. Plant and Krauss won the most awards that night at five with Raising Sand winning Album of the Year along with Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. There was also Record of the Year for “Please Read The Letter,” Best Pop Collaboration for “Rich Woman,” and Best Country Collaboration with “Killing The Blues.” Plant and Krauss got one of the final performances of the ceremony performing “Rich Woman” and “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On).” When they accepted Album of the Year, Plant, using his signature sense of humor, said in his speech, “In the old days we would have called this selling out but I think it’s a good way to spend a Sunday.”

I have a couple of theories as to why Raising Sand did as well as it did at the Grammys. One is that it fits into that Grammys tradition of rewarding music that is tasteful and good sounding but not something widely popular in terms of sales, hits, and/or acclaim. Plus, perhaps the names of Krauss and Burnett provided a sense of familiarity to Grammy voters after their win for the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. Secondly, the Recording Academy likes rewarding established legends especially if they weren’t rewarded in their prime. For Robert Plant, he never received a Grammy for his time in Led Zeppelin with the group only being nominated for a Grammy once during their time active which was in 1970 for Best New Artist which ultimately went to Crosby, Stills & Nash. For them, it’s better late than never to honor a legend.

With all that, it’s easy why many would be annoyed at Raising Sand dominating the Grammys especially with the other albums it was competing with. You had Coldplay and Lil Wayne nominated for their most popular and acclaimed albums in Viva La Vida Or Death To All His Friends and Tha Carter III respectively. There was also Ne-Yo with Year of the Gentleman which wasn’t hugely popular as the Coldplay and Lil Wayne albums but still got good reviews and spawned a wave of hits. And then there was Radiohead’s acclaimed late-career hit In Rainbows which is mainly remembered now for how the band self-released it on their website allowing fans to pay how much they wanted for the album. Compared to the other nominees, Raising Sand isn’t a bad album but one that isn’t all that exciting or representative of music at the moment which means of course it won.

12 years later, Raising Sand feels like the end of an era when it comes to Album of the Year wins. For much of the ‘90s and ‘00s, the Grammys had made a big habit of giving awards to these kinds of older leaning middlebrow records but since Plant and Krauss, the Album awards have largely been given to younger artists who for better or worse seem to be more in tune with the zeitgeist save for the occasional outlier like Beck’s Morning Phase. Even with something like Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s recent collaboration album Love For Sale getting an Album nod this year, the Academy seems more interested now in rewarding work from exciting acts who are dominating the conversation than being stuck in the past. Honestly, I’m fine with that.

After initial plans for a follow-up didn’t work out, Plant and Krauss have recently reunited for their second album together Raise The Roof with a tour planned next year. Like with Raising Sand, it’s a fine-sounding album but not a particularly exciting one to return to. Come next year, Raise the Roof will probably be nominated for Album of the Year but unlike Raising Sand I don’t expect it to win much considering how different the Academy is now compared to 2009.

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