If you have ever been on a first date or on a long road trip or have spent your first night at college huddled together on the floor of a dorm room down the way, then you have possibly played the Desert Island game. It’s a deceptively simple game—a moment to learn, a lifetime to master.
The rules are pretty much this: you are going to be stuck on a desert island, and you can only have one movie/book/album/McDonald’s Extra Value Meal for the rest of time. What do you take with you?
The eyes of your date or travel companions or batch of friends you are about to forge lifelong relationships with fall on you, and then you have to give your answer.
We aren’t on a first date, you really shouldn’t be reading this while operating a moving vehicle, and my legs would fall asleep after like eight minutes of sitting on some Freshman’s Target area rug their parents bought for their dorm room floor. Which is another way of saying you will never know my answers to these very important questions. (Okay: American Beauty/East of Eden/Raising Sand/No. 2 with extra pickles and a Dr. Pepper).
While I could spend hours enjoying and writing about each item in that list, this week’s mediation is reserved for my desert island album: Raising Sand. It’s a happy accident that the title seems so fitting for this game.
Let me tell you just a little bit about what Raising Sand is. If it was a fairy tale, it would begin a little like this: once upon a time in a kingdom of black stone, there lived a prince. Far, far away in a kingdom of rolling apple hills there lived a princess. The prince was very haughty and sang loud boastful songs, and the princess was very beautiful but sang haunting, sad songs. One day, a witch took the roads they were each walking on and tied them together to make sure their paths would cross, which happened. They did not fall in love, but they taught each other how to be boastful and how to be haunted, and their music lived happily ever after.
For the normal, literal minded folks out there, here is the decoded version of the story: Robert Plant, a cocky blues shouter from the coal-streaked Midlands of England sang for Led Zeppelin for many years. Allison Krauss, the darling of American bluegrass, fronted Union Station for many years (and also sang some killer tracks for Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil and O Brother! Where Art Thou?). The witch in the story is guitarist and mastermind-producer T-Bone Burnett, and while they were playing at a tribute to Lead Belly, they got the sense that making an album together might be a fun and dangerous experiment.
Sometimes, when you mix two things together, they worsen (e.g. toothpaste, orange juice). And sometimes they start a reaction that is greater than the parts of which it’s made—like breathing carbon into iron to forge steel. I bet you ten bucks that if you walked up to Robert Plant during their 1977 world tour and told him that in 2007 he would collaborate with a fiddler on covers of Americana tunes, he probably would have asked you what drug you were on and where could he score a hit of it. Alison Krauss probably just would have blushed. But, like most of the great things in the world, it was an unlikely crossing of unlikely paths, and the results are stunning enough to have picked up something like half a dozen Grammys.
My taste in things usually doesn’t come endorsed by people who actually know what they’re talking about, but go ahead and add one more item to the list of things that are surprising about this album. It deserved every laurel that was tossed its way, including Album Of The Year.
The roots of my love for Raising Sand dig deep into the muddy soil of the Led Zeppelin catalog, which is probably a story for another day. In the summer of 2008, my then girlfriend and I hit the road, driving some eight hundred hours (we got really lost in Western Tennessee, and also came within an inch of dying in a car crash, and came within an inch of killing each other for other reasons—again, all these stories will have to wait). But when we rolled into the Ryman Auditorium in the heart of Nashville, the veil of all our woes was lifted back and were left staring at pure, naked happiness. It was the best concert I had ever seen (which did not include many acts by then, admittedly). And it was one of the best times we had together. That’s maybe my favorite part of seeing good concerts with good people—how all these wonderful things become cemented in the walk of fame of your memories.
When I returned home, I remember standing on the shore of Lake Bemidji talking to my best friend on the phone. “I don’t know,” I said, which was code for I am about to say something that I know to be a truth with a capital T. “This music is so good, that listening to Led Zeppelin now just feels like a step backward. I feel like I’ve listened to Robert Plant sort of come of age. And I think I’ve grown up with him a little.”
You probably can’t appreciate the scale of that statement, because again I must assume you are normal, and did not obsess over “That’s The Way” and “When The Levee Breaks” like I did. But I meant those words The overstated and obvious innuendos seemed a little like the stuff of a junior high locker room. Raising Sand was so rich, and nuanced, and aware of its faults in the beautiful way that only comes with years to look back on.
Plus, at their live show they did team up to do what was and will forever be the best version of Black Dog possible. I mean, you give one of the most famous riffs from classic rock radio to a banjo instead, and you’re going to change the world. It’s just a fact of life. That and Tootie.
I have years of listening to Raising Sand to look back on now, and my love hasn’t faded even a little.
This past weekend was Record Store Day. My beloved and I hoofed and bussed to Hymie’s Vintage Records and caught some live delta blues, some Northwoods Americana fiddle, and some funky soul-folk all pouring from a tiny stage in the back of the shop. It was awesomely rock and roll.
I, however, am less rock and roll than I would like to believe, and near the end of the last set, I had to sit on the floor because I was seeing stars and feeling weird from locking my knees for three hours. Leslie is more rock and roll than I will ever be. But you maybe knew that already.
But I lived to tell the tale, to pick up some new vinyl, to bus back with the love of my life and to come home and listen to Raising Sand spin as it was meant to be heard, for the first time in my life. I mean, CDs are great and mp3s have their place, but it’s hard to argue that music doesn’t feel, sound, and smell more like it should when it’s being tapped into by a needle on a turntable.
Also, something interesting happens when you break up an album into four sides that must be played trough in their entirety before being flipped over: each side is a three song journey. The track listing, which was great to start with, suddenly became even greater. Did T-Bone Burnett know all along that the album had four small sonic arcs to it? Did he intend each section to start sort of rollicking and fade into something more quiet and reflective?
I suspect he did. The man is a witch after all. At least in my fairy tale he is.