On his new album Band Of Joy, Robert Plant covers Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, and a pair of Low songs—not what you might expect from the man who fronted one of the titans of classic rock, Led Zeppelin. Then again, this is a new Robert Plant: He’s at peace with the direction his career has taken him, a direction that has, in recent years, pointed repeatedly to Nashville. For the follow-up to Raising Sand, his platinum, Grammy-winning collaboration with bluegrass legend Alison Krauss and producer T Bone Burnett, Plant asked Buddy Miller, who toured with him on the record, to help assemble a band. Miller rounded up fellow Music City notables Patty Griffin [vocals, guitar] and Darrell Scott [vocals, various instruments], forming the core lineup of what amounts to a literal band of joy for Americana fans. Plant sat down with The A.V. Club in Tampa, Florida in late June, the day before his new group’s 11th ever show. He explained his reasoning for unearthing the moniker of his pre-Zeppelin group Band Of Joy, laughed at the thought of his potential crowning as the king of a new genre, and discussed the possibility of Led Zeppelin performing again one day.
The A.V. Club: What are your earliest memories of the original Band Of Joy? Do you remember what year it actually started? There are conflicting accounts, everything from 1965-1968.
Robert Plant: It started in late ’66, early ’67. There were several groups before that, but the Band Of Joy that inspired me to resurrect the title was in ’67 with John Bonham. Paul Lockey played bass, who later went on to play in The Foundations. Kevyn Gammond played guitar and he was in a kind of country-rock band called Bronco. We probably spent about a year starving and thinking that we were part, I suppose, Jefferson Airplane, and part Howlin’ Wolf, if you like. And without any success at all to speak of, we had about two or three hotbeds where people actually got some kind of plot. And we were very good, you know? It was a great band, and a lot of extended musical passages and a lot more free-form passages, which would change nightly, which is how it was moving in those days. We were a kind of British second cousin to what was going on the Bay Area, I suppose. I think had we been another 5,000 miles west of where we were trying it out, we would’ve had a lot more of a rapport with a lot more people.
AVC: Did you give Buddy Miller a free hand to pick out the other players in this incarnation?
RP: He discussed it with me. I’m British—ostensibly British—but I don’t know where I really belong, you know? I belong in Britain because I sail under several flags, but you know, I love the environment, my friends, the sort of little crazy world that I’ve got around me. But I seem to be far more hooked up with the memory banks and the knowledge of the people I’ve met in Tennessee. They can feed off my nonsense and the knowledge I have of my world, and we exchange tales of how we came upon certain artists that have impressed us. I guess for Buddy and I, there’s a cut-off point in our mutual comprehension of music and I can’t go too far into the kind of—where rock ’n’ roll became country or where country was always country. So I can get Clarence Ashley and the stuff coming out of the hills, which was as black as it was white as it was gray, you know? I can hear all those songs that one minute were at a sukey jump with Leadbelly and then the next minute, they were at some white hoedown. I get all that. But the actual contemporizing of the Nashville sound, all that great stuff that came around the RCA studio and all those magnificent characters and players, I only had a smattering of knowledge of.
But if you’re gonna go into the whys and wherefores of contemporary music in Britain when I was growing up, whatever glimpses you got came from Mississippi and Chicago. Not many people were raving about Jerry Ragovoy’s work in Philadelphia, or even, to some degree, what Alan Toussaint had been doing in Louisiana. There’s a radio network called AFN in Europe, American Forces Network, which was for me as a kid quite a revelation. Sometimes the radio under my pillow in 1965 sounded like 1460 AM in Nashville today, where you get the Wolf and Robert Johnson butted up to Kool And The Gang. Fantastic.
AVC: With the success of Raising Sand and what seems to be generally positive buzz about this album—you could become the unlikely king of Americana.
RP: [Laughs.] That’s about as impossible as… It’s a good joke.
AVC: Well, Raising Sand was a platinum record, and you don’t get a lot of music in that realm that sells that many copies and that makes that much of an impression.
RP: It’s a fair point. With all small pools of beautiful music, there is a sort of sacrosanct, almost hallowed, area, of where the audience and musician become one in this closely guarded secret. It’s bullshit, absolute bullshit. Music is for every single person that walks the planet. In the end, if it gets you, it gets you. So terminology, terms, parentheses, I think that they’re irrelevant. I think what happened was Alison and I made some great records with a producer who was right on the top of his gig, and some great people were playing around him. And the songs were chosen really, really well. I wanted to bring in some smoky sort of stuff I thought I could never get at with anybody else. But I think the great thing is that there’s a promising and more and more progressive marriage between artists under a flag like that. So you know, I don’t know where Band Of Horses fits in or The Low Anthem. The Low Anthem have got to be part of that. They should be playing in Nashville at the Ryman. I mean, fantastic music. It should go way beyond banjos and fiddles, you know. It should be everything that is beautiful that’s not shooting for X Factor and the post-Aerosmith generation of rock.
AVC: I can’t help but imagine that when you won a couple of Americana Awards in Nashville that there was some purist in the audience uneasy about the British guy up onstage.
RP: That’s absolutely right. Alison used to laugh at me and say, “I’ll never work again!” And I say to Buddy, “Look, if this is too much, you know, you guys have got to bail out…” It’s telling stories. Songs are tales. And the tale can be told in another country in another way. My sensitivity and my love of music has no boundary. I can be reverential if that’s what it requires. And it shouldn’t. It’s about singing the song.
AVC: It seems like, at least with these last two albums, that you’re on a roll in this direction.
RP: There’s an infinite number of fantastic songs that have great integrity which are not really following a blues base or a rock ’n’ roll chordal progression or anything like that. It’s fantastic to sing songs that have a less obvious course, structurally.
AVC: Have you thought about what’s next? Is there going to be another album with Alison?
RP: I have no idea. I see Alison regularly. I hang out with her in Nashville when I’m working there with Buddy and Patty, but she’s busy. I know she had a great time because her hips were swinging, she was rocking out. She was singing at the top of everything that she could do, with gusto. She unleashed herself in a different way. She’s such a beautiful friend. But I think she had to go back.
AVC: Back to her own solo material?
RP: Yeah, I think she’d been out long enough. What would I do next? I haven’t got a clue. Patty’s suggestion is to try and write stuff, I really like the idea of that. Singing with her is way cool. It’s such a different thing, the combination of voices of Patty and I. And Buddy’s the kind of captain of the ship, in a way. His integrity and his scowls. If I’m going a little bit too far into Englishness, he’ll pull it all back into a decent line that won’t offend even the most conservative Nashvillian.
AVC: It seems like this could very well be the start of a new phase for you. Did you think going in to Raising Sand that it was going to be half as successful as it is?
RP: There’s a huge, huge group of people my age from my village back on the Welsh border who are bereft of music that makes sense to them. And there are less and less avenues of access. And so if something is strong and it can creep into the public eye, or the public ear, whisper in the ear, it re-invokes hope in people my age because there’s so little access to stuff.
AVC: It’s not like you left there thinking it was just another job.
RP: Oh, no, no, no. Because I’d been offered two amazing songs that I’d never heard and for me to sing. And I didn’t know I could do that. And I did it and fled. Just in case it didn’t really happen… I just couldn’t believe I’d gone from “The Lemon Song” to that.
AVC: I don’t suppose you sit around pondering your legacy.
RP: I might have a couple gin and tonics and feel a bit good about myself occasionally, but so does everybody else. If you score a goal in a crucial soccer match, you feel good. But we were buried alive initially by the media here; I think Rolling Stone had a purge against anything British. I don’t know whether that’s because Freddie And The Dreamers had put in a bad word for all Brits in the first place. But it doesn’t matter. So much of that, I can’t remember. I played a gig last night and I called a friend of mine and said, “Have I ever played here before?”
AVC: In Mobile?
RP: Yeah. And so I found out that I had. And I said to the audience, “It’s great to be back, I must apologize, I tried to get back here a few times, but there’s something wrong with the navigation on the car. It’s 37 years since I’ve been here.” It’s like going to confession, you know? In 1971, I played in Iceland and I went back with Strange Sensation five years ago. And Iceland is a very small place, very sparsely populated. So there’s only one hall, and if you play in the summer, of course, it never gets dark. I was walking down the street and guys my age were coming up and saying, “I was in that room.” And I was going, “What?” I met the prime minister and he said, “I was in that room.” And I said, “What room?” He said, “You know, when you played here. I was a student. I helped with the equipment.” And I thought, “Shit, here I am again. In that room.”
AVC: You’ve mentioned a lot of new bands during our conversation—Arcade Fire and The Low Anthem—and it seems like you keep up with things. Are you into social media at all? Does Twitter mean anything to you?
RP: Nothing. I won’t touch it.
AVC: You know what it is, though?
RP: Oh yeah, I know what it is. I still use a quill. I mean, they still use the wheel. The idea of actually discussing a record’s release and hammering it into a place where it’ll make sense—
AVC: In 140 characters.
RP: Exactly. So I pick up the phone and get a response and then develop that response by, you know, tone of voice, affirmation. On that level, I don’t have to worry about documentation. I just have to worry about cause and effect, right there and then. There’s nothing I can do. My friends have websites. Justin Adams is like my brother who used to be with me in Strange Sensation. He’s got a project; I go to his website and see what he’s doing.
AVC: So you don’t have a desire, other than by means of song, obviously, to speak to people en masse?
RP: Absolutely not. I can leave that to Pete Townsend, I think. A daily blog would just about finish me off completely.
AVC: There was a quote from you in an old Rolling Stone piece about Led Zeppelin that I wanted to read to you. You were 26. It was 1975 and you said, “I don’t see the point in growing up,” and I just wonder, now that you’re here, looking back on that, how do you feel about it?
RP: I think he was right. But, really, it’s more about spirit than chronology. I mean, none of this comes accidentally. I spent a lot of time rolled up in a carpet like Mezz Mezzrow in some kind of other world altogether on my way to being like this. If I didn’t do what I do, I wouldn’t be as young as I am. I push myself. I celebrate what I can do. I don’t see the point in getting older. I mean, I’m gonna expire. That’s fine. But all the way up to it, I’ve got to be bumping. I’m a one-trick pony, you know?
AVC: Do you really believe that?
RP: It’s singing, isn’t it? I’m not saving lives. I’m not actually digging trenches for irrigation systems, so what am I doing? I’m singing and I should go placidly and joyously through the whole thing and work hard and not take it for granted. It’s great to have this gift. If I stayed in the same zone for too long, I probably would lose it. But this is new. Everybody on board this thing right now is in a sort of the flush of youth, as far as the lifespan of whatever we’re doing, however long it might last. I’d love to, later on in the year, next year, make another record with Buddy ’cause I really feel so tuned into the way he and I take a piece of music and make it our own. Or just take a piece of music that hasn’t been born yet. Either way, whatever I do in the future will be this side of the Atlantic. In this country. In the minds and the memories and the encyclopedic sort of references that are on the 86,000 songs on Buddy’s laptop.
AVC: Going back to Led Zeppelin, are you guys thinking of playing again?
RP: I think we’re probably thinking about talking.
AVC: The 2007 show was pretty well received.
RP: Well, you know, reception wasn’t our greatest concern, ever.
AVC: How did you receive it?
RP: I was driven to distraction with fear and reminiscences and huge reflections of my mortality and, like, can I do it? Is it best I leave it as it was? Is it some kind of pulsing fun machine? But we had to do it. We had to say goodbye to Ahmet [Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records] properly and that was a great way of putting a lot of things back in the box that were all over the floor.
AVC: Does playing those songs with those people make you feel a little too mortal for your own good?
RP: No, it’s just—I’ve been there. It’s great, but I’ve been there in that form. And I think everybody feels the same, really. It’s not even a talking point. I don’t know how many times Stephen Stills has been asked about whether or not he wants to go back to Buffalo Springfield. Maybe he and Neil got out in time before it actually had the same kind of effect. But you’re sitting opposite me. Do I look like I should be doing that, really? I’ve still got a twinkle in me.
AVC: I think you can push yourself if you want to, but there’s no reason you should have to.
RP: There’s no reason for anything. Just do stuff that makes you smile. No pressure. Just sing. My big ambition, really, is to write again, because I think when I made Mighty Rearranger with Strange Sensation, I really found a place that was great. But it was a different world five years ago. In Britain there were a lot of muted cries to bring Blair to The Hague to be tried following the invasion of Iraq. There were loads of things that were really, really pertinent then that have been swept under the carpet somewhere. The smoke and mirrors carry on. And now Blair becomes a Roman Catholic and there’s a peace envoy in the Middle East. That’s a nice jump. Must be a board game you can get from Barnes & Noble, something like that.