Friday, February 13, 2009

Raising Sand - The British Invasion of The Grammys

About 20 years ago, I almost bought a synthesizer that once belonged to British rocker Robert Plant. At the time, I don't think I could have told you the title of any Led Zeppelin songs, and I probably would not have recognized one on the radio. I was just in the market for a used synthesizer, and the fact that it had once belonged to Robert Plant (and had documentation to prove it) was irrelevant to me. I should point out that I would probably recognize Led Zeppelin's music today.

Fast forward to Christmas 2007, and my Sister-in-Law bought my Wife and me a CD called Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. I have to admit, I was more familiar with Krauss's work than Plant's, having been through a phase of listening to a lot of bluegrass music. I just knew from the first time I listened to the album, that it was very special. The songs, the arrangements and the blending of the voices were magical. Who would have thought that the collaboration of a British rock god and an American bluegrass fiddler and vocalist would yield such a potent brew?

Plant and Krauss first performed together at a concert to celebrate the music of Lead Belly. They thought the pairing sounded promising, so they brought in producer T-Bone Burnett, most well known for producing the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Burnett's selection of songs, mostly classics and standards, and his production, "Built on a shared core of modal blues and country soul, filtered through alternating layers of unadorned tenderness and thick, shifting textures" provided the final pieces of the puzzle.

Last weekend, Brits won big at the Grammys, with awards going to Coldplay, Adele, Duffy and Radiohead. Performances at the show included one by Paul McCartney. However, Robert Plant headed what much of the British press described as a British Invasion. Raising Sand won 5 Grammys: Album of the Year; Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album; Record of the Year (for "Please Read the Letter"); Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (for "Rich Woman"); and Best Country Collaboration with Vocals (for "Killing the Blues").

The British press also speculated that the organizers had been desperate for big wins by American artists to help reverse years of declining domestic TV audiences. However, the 12,000 voting members of the Recording Academy apparently did not play ball, and American wins were largely restricted to relatively minor awards.

What did you think of the Grammys? What do you think of "Raising Sand?" Please let us know by sharing your comments.


Grace said...

For my 16th birthday, I went to my first rock concert. It was 1973 and it changed my life (well, that and smoking my first joint! LOL ;-)..) "Stairway to Heaven" was our Senior High School graduation song...of I remember correctly.

Sure hope you've had a chance to get to know Zeps music some - they did some awesome blues!

I loved the Grammys, and it was great to see Robert and Allison win! What I particularly like, is how many artists are 'crossing over party lines', in order to collaborate with others.

Graham said...

Thanks for your comment, Grace! Yes, I did eventually get into Led Zeppelin. But would you believe that I'd only heard "Stairway" done by cover artists (including, if I recall by a symphony orchestra - that's how uncool I was!).

I love the cross-pollination that occurs when artists think out of their boxes and collaborate with others. It isn't always successful, of course, but I think in this case it bore some particularly wonderful fruit.

MrQwerty said...


I've always thought the Grammys existed in some ghastly safe cosseted world where taste had been thrown out the window and pop music had not even been invented. A place where only MOR, Conservatism and Middle America is represented in a strange parallel universe, 30 years behind the real world.

Lets take 1958 for example when the Grammys were first introduced. In 1958 when Rock and Roll was in full swing we have music awarded that is so safe and staid, even your granny would not be put off one stroke of her knit one, pearl one by it's sheer and utter mildness. 1958 winners include: Henry Mancini, Perry Como, Ella Fitzgerald (reviving Irving Berlin), The Champs (RnB Performance - yes really!), The Kingston Trio & Nelson Riddle to name but a few.

Cut forward 20 years later to 1978, and in a year where Punk had firmly made it's mark over the previous 18 months in the UK and New York and for Record of the year, we have: Just the Way You Are - Billy Joel! OK a nice jazzy ballad, with cool chord changes, but the best that year - come on? Continuing on we have the king of cheeze: Barry Manilow, best female: Anne Murray, RnB: George Benson, Best newcomers: A Taste of Honey. All ridiculously conservatively middly mild to the point of laughable pain.

Skip 30 years forward to last year and I'm not surprised to see the dreadfully overrated and epitome of tedious: Coldplay, where a memorable tune has never troubled their reputed compositional skill. We do have one or two more interesting artists like Adele, Duffy, Kanyne West, Jason Mraz and even Robert Plant & Alison Krauss turn in an unexpected union and a brilliant record to boot. Finally it seems the Grammys have recognized that Pop Music does exist, its just that they've taken half a century to do it.

However given the change, the Grammys has not veered to far from what it always was - the industry congratulating and rewarding their own in an incestuous swamp of mutual admiration.

The Grammys will never really be about the music that music fans listen too - it's the sound of record company execs and their product slapping each other on the back.

Graham said...

I think you should say what you mean, MrQwerty! ;)

Seriously, though, I agree with just about everything you've said.

I'm no fan of Coldplay, but there did seem to be some inspiration behind this year's winners. Of course, I make no secret of loving Plant & Krauss's collaboration.

Looking back at the Wikipedia entry in Wikipedia, I find your observations addressed, with a particularly interesting juxtaposition here:

Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) wrote on his blog December 6, 2007, "While the music industry is doing everything they possibly can to go out of business, can we all make sure to rid ourselves of the Grammys, too? Out of touch old men jacking each other off. ENOUGH! Have a nice day." [8]

Bono (U2) was critical of the Grammys early in his career but later he began to appreciate their inclusiveness:

He was wearing sunglasses when he stated "We called them 'The Grannys'. Snobs, we did not want to hear anything about music from anyone older than us." But, he continues, he changed his mind, not because of the awards themselves, but the telecast's inclusivity: "And then the Staple Singers came on... It was all there: anger, love, forgiveness, family, community, and the deepest sense of history... Here was the full power of American music challenging my arrogance. I watched the rest of the show with new eyes. The Grammys invited jazz, country, rock, soul and classical into the same hall. No regard for demographic studies of what would deliver ratings, no radio call-out research-- a mad amalgam of the profound and the absurd and the creeping realization that one man's Mozart is another man's Vegas."[9]