Christian Thinker and Pastor Eugene Peterson once spoke about the relationship between the institutional and spiritual life of the church like this:

“Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death.

So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.” (Christianity Today, April 2005)

The bark and the life feels like an analogous starting point for talking about the reverence of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ new album, Raise The Roof. You could spend a good long time appreciating the bark of this album. Each track lovingly, insightfully essays the great generic conventions of American folk music. Like generations of musicians before them, Plant and Krauss have got the stomp, they’ve got the drawl, they’ve got the twang and the mountain fresh harmonies. On this album, there are also British Invasion inflections, such as the subtle fabness of ‘Searching for my Love’.

It sounds fantastic, beautifully produced, and, as evidenced by its release close to Christmas, it is bound to be incredibly popular. It’ll work on a Sunday afternoon for the post-Cerys Matthews 6 Music cognoscenti. However, if you only buy one album a year, you wouldn’t be wrong to make it this one. It’s not a Christmas album, but like a sweet potato pie, it absorbs the scent of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger into its own and would work its magic with a log fire, port and stilton.

But that is the bark. The respect for genre. The world class musicianship. All of that is protecting what really matters about Raise The Roof, which is the life, the spirit, the meaning of the blues. Raise The Roof is an album that is reverent with that which matters most; the heart in the mouth or in pieces on the floor, the soil beneath the feet and the sun on the horizon.

There’s a conversation on the second side as Plant leads on new song ‘High and Lonesome’ before Krauss replies with a version of Merle Haggard’s ‘Going Where The Lonely Go’. ‘High and Lonesome’ growls and thunders the tale of a traveller who’s maybe gone too far and lost their love, while Krauss plays the other side, ‘rollin’ with the flow / Goin’ where the lonely go.’ It’s this kind of conversation that matters. It’s a privilege to listen in on two performers like this and feel this connection between them.

Plant and Krauss’ experience as musicians matters because it is, at its core, life experience. They have seen and done enough to know that it is only worth going after what is precious; the spark of life, the spark of joy or the dread of fear that raises the roof in our hearts. There is nothing cheap about this album. There’s no hint of a sell out, cash cow or lazy cliché. Plant and Krauss have gone the distance, waited for the moment, and when it came, wrapped it and protected it in a tough bark so that what is fully alive about Raise The Roof remains so.

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