Robert Plant's Mystical Mountain Hop

How the rock legend let go of Led Zeppelin and rebooted his solo career

Robert Plant
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Robert Plant performs in Francisco, California.
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In October, Robert Plant's Band of Joy played a show in Birmingham, England. The theater is not far from the suburban roads where he and his friend John Bonham once siphoned gas from parked cars so they could get to gigs. About halfway through the set, a young woman jumped onto the stage. She brushed past his guitar player and kissed Plant on the lips. Plant smiled – this is not the first time this has happened – and continued singing. After the show, Joan Bonham, John's 81-year-old mom, made her way backstage. She pinched Plant's cheeks and smiled. "I see you're still up to the same tricks," she said. Sitting in a Primrose Hill pub, Robert Plant tells the story with a laugh and almost a tear. He moves in and speaks in a conspiratorial whisper: "You know, she's right."

At 62, Plant still has a bit of the Golden God about him. The locks are gray-blond, but they still flow down his back. "I live alone now," says Plant, who is long-divorced. "Imagine what would happen to all my records on the floor if the wrong person stepped in when I was out! But I do have the occasional tryst." He stretches out the last word so long it sounds positively filthy. A few minutes later, a very attractive woman passes the window. "Look at that," says Plant, arching his eyebrows. "Look at that hair." He sighs. "Thank you, girl, thank you very, very much."

Musically, Plant plays less to stereotype. He left millions on the table by nixing a Led Zeppelin reunion. He recently walked away from a second album with Alison Krauss. Instead, he formed a new group, naming it after the band he was in with Bonham before Zeppelin, and released Band of Joy, an album of obscure covers, in September. On a recent rainy London morning, he is in fine comic form, but he turns momentarily serious when it comes to talk of musicians – no names! – who get stuck in lucrative artistic ruts.

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"There's nothing worse than a bunch of jaded old farts, and that's a fact," says Plant. "People who have written their story – they've gotten to this point where nothing moves. I don't deal in that, and I don't deal with anybody who deals in that."

Besides dodging the odd woman looking for a kiss, band members Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin know firsthand the joyous and stomach-churning task of following Plant's unpredictable shifts. "You have to watch his every movement – he's very subtle," says Miller. "When he dips his right shoulder, that means he wants the level or dynamic to drop down so he can caress the next line. If you're not watching, you're going to miss something."

I mention Miller's stage vigilance to Griffin, and she laughs. "Well, Robert did name one of his albums Mighty ReArranger," she says. "He's funny and disarming. Every night he sings a little different. You have to pay attention."

Plant played in the original Band of Joy with Bonham in 1967 and 1968. The group never caught on, and Bonham and Plant both found new gigs. Back then, Plant's influences were primarily Mississippi Delta blues. He grew up going to blues festivals, introducing himself at 14 to legendary harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson at a urinal. Williamson responded with a curt "fuck off." Plant's answer? He snuck backstage and stole Williamson's harmonica.

But the new Band of Joy, who kick off a U.S. tour on January 18th, are not a nostalgia trip. Plant's love has moved a few hundred miles north to Appalachia – a turning point was when he saw Down From the Mountain, a 2001 documentary that featured live performances by bluegrass artists whose music provided the foundation for the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? It opened a new world to him.

"When I was a kid, I didn't know about the great country singers," Plant says with an embarrassed shrug. He stirs his tea and begins rattling off names. "I knew about Leroy Van Dyke, Skeeter Davis and Jim Reeves, but there was no access to the real stuff like the Stanley Brothers. I didn't know about that until Down From the Mountain, and I'd been in America then for 35 years. How amazing is that?"

Plant began as a pop singer – one of his first recordings was a cover of the Young Rascals' "You Better Run." He then morphed into a metal belter, serving Middle-earth folk on the side. His first solo incarnation was as a lounge lizard in the Honeydrippers. Now, he's an alt-country crooner. But he isn't so much a music vulture as a music nerd. He has traveled many miles in service of his geekdom, spending a night a few years ago in the Joshua Tree Inn room in California where Gram Parsons overdosed and driving over to the Bentonia, Mississippi, home of blues singer Jack Owens. He didn't ring the doorbell, just drove around the block.

Plant began filling in the gaps of his country-music knowledge in the same obsessive way. He devoured Smithsonian recordings of Appalachian artists and tracked down shows by rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. He rented a car and drove to the Cumberland Gap on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. One day, he pulled into a diner for lunch and came across two kids ripping on a fiddle and a harmonica: "I only thought Howlin' Wolf wailed like that, but here were these two white kids. It blew me away."

Plant and Krauss first sang together in 2004 at a concert honoring Lead Belly at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The two didn't make it into the studio until 2006, but it was worth the wait. Their collaboration, 2007's Raising Sand, was a critical and commercial success, melding Krauss' and Plant's ethereal vocals over an eclectic group of country-influenced covers and a remake of "Please Read the Letter," a 1998 song he wrote with former bandmate Jimmy Page. There was clamor for a follow-up, but Plant says the 2009 sessions didn't feel right.

"The sound just wasn't there," he says. "Alison is the best. She's one of my favorite people. We'll come back to it."

Instead, he called up Miller, who played guitar on Raising Sand and some of the aborted 2009 sessions. "I told him to go back to Alison," says Miller with a laugh. "I thought some of the songs were really great. But he was insistent." The two regrouped in San Francisco last year for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and started piecing together a band that would include bassist Byron House, multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott and drummer Marco Giovino. Plant eventually called longtime Miller friend Griffin to provide backing vocals.

The group met in late 2009 in Nashville. Miller, who co-produced Band of Joy, brought vintage R&B numbers, and Plant arrived with some of his own, including songs by Los Lobos and Richard Thompson. While the first days went well, something was missing. "This needs to rock more," Plant told Miller. Plant came to the second session with two new songs: "Monkey" and "Silver Rider," both by Low, a Minnesota indie-rock trio. On both tunes, Miller provides a droning, chiming guitar, Griffin sighs a ghosty vocal and Plant whispers exhausted words. It sounds like something from a David Lynch film. "I'm not sure if the album would have worked without them," says Miller.

Plant is a naturally antsy guy, and after 90 minutes at the pub, he checks the time. He suggests we head to a nearby record store so he can shop for some country bootlegs. "I've got about an hour, then I've got to go to the osteopath," he says. "Nothing major, just maintenance."

I ask Plant where he first heard Low. He jerks his finger out toward the Primrose Hill streets.

"There are some good stores in this area," says Plant. "You're in an unusual mishmash of culture and vomit. There are bars that play great stuff."

The older Plant gets, the more he seems obsessed with songwriters. He raves about legendary Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who is represented on the LP by "Harm's Swift Way," the last song he ever wrote.

"Every one of his songs is a landscape for a book," says Plant. "It could be the first line of a novel. What goes with that is a short time span, by the looks of it."

I ask him what he means.

"You get too close to the sun," says Plant. "Maybe that's the courageous way. Songwriters sometimes get old and spend too much time in the supermarket buying health-food stuff."

Plant has a specific songwriter in mind: himself.

"I've kind of given up writing," he says. "All my writing is sort of meandering. The last lime I lifted a pen was when Tony Blair became a Roman Catholic. We were supposedly going into the Gulf, determined to sort the world out in the name of tyranny. Then, once he had to lease the throne, he became a Roman Catholic and became a peace envoy in the Middle East. That's when I knew the world was completely upside down."

Not long ago, Plant flew to Morocco and drove down the coast, retracing a journey he took with Page in 1978. The duo brought tape recorders to capture local sound, but the trip was most noteworthy for run-ins with border guards and because Morocco is where Plant started writing "Kashmir."

"I wanted to go back and take that road," he says. "It just heads all the way down the coast. It was fucking amazing."

Reprising road trips aside, Plant's relationship with his old band is conflicted. He says he's happy Zeppelin went out triumphantly with the 2007 concert honoring Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun. Everyone wanted more, except Plant. Afterward, Jason Bonham (who replaced his dad at the gig) hugged Plant and asked about future shows. "Your dad would be so bloody proud of the way you played," Plant said. "But Led Zeppelin was us and your dad." Three years later, Plant still isn't going there.

"It was an amazing evening," he says with a sad smile. "The preparations for it were fraught and intense, but the last rehearsal was really, really good, for all that it represented and all that we were trying to capture. But I've gone so far somewhere else that I almost can't relate to it."

I ask the requisite question about a Zeppelin reunion. It's the only time Plant gets cross. "I see there's some kind of remit about the Tibetan Book of the Dead that we have to keep going hack to," he says, sighing dramatically. "It's a bit of a pain in the pisser, to be honest. Who cares?" He softens a little. "I know people care, but think about it from my angle – soon, I'm going to need help crossing the street."

He grins through gritted teeth and references a famous Zep tale about the boys using a mud shark as a sexual implement on a groupie. "Band of Joy is a thought process as well," he says. "It probably won't make as good reading as what happened to the mud shark after it had been used. Tell people the mud shark is dead and Buddy Miller's got 86,000 songs on his laptop."

We walk for a few minutes in the London rain, passing a slightly decrepit mansion. It's the Cecil Sharp House, a repository for British folk music and dance. Plant grabs my arm. "I've never been here. I always wanted to go. This is much better than a record store."

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We enter and wander into a performance space. About 15 teenagers are scattered in small groups working on Shakespeare scenes. A young actor shouts, "What, do you tremble? Are you all afraid? Alas, I blame you not; for you are mortal!"

This makes Plant smile. He points at a mural on the wall that represents scenes of traditional British folk music and dance. "What I didn't know was so many of those Appalachian songs in America come from these islands," he says. "At its root. 'Callows Pole' is an Elizabethan ballad." We roam toward the library. One of the theater kids snaps out of his reverie.

"Are you . . . ?"

"Yes, I am," Plant says to the teen. "What do you think? Acting? Is it too late?"

In the library, the scholars barely look up from their books. A curator comes over and they talk about the building's namesake, particularly his trip in 1918 to Appalachia. Cecil Sharp returned with notebooks filled with British folk songs that had died out back home but were still vibrant an ocean away. Plant picks up a book devoted to Appalachian compositions and flips through the pages. He lets out a small gasp. "Look at this: 'The Cuckoo,' that's an old [folk musician] Clarence Ashley song. Alison introduced me to it."

He quietly sings the first two lines: "The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies/She brings us glad tidings, and she tells us no lies." He excitedly thumbs through the pages. "Wow, can you believe what we found? Absolutely spectacular."

Plant pulls out a credit card and scarfs up three books. He looks at the time and says he has to go. "You stay," says Plant. "Learn from this." At the front door, he pulls his leather jacket up around his neck. "See? It's all connected."

He steps quickly down the stairs, his hair flowing behind him, crossing the street without help.

This story is from the January 20th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1122: January 20, 2011