NPR Music | Staff
Since the glory days of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant has covered a lot of ground. He has restlessly pursued interests in world music, blues and country. In 2009 he won five Grammys for Raising Sand, an Americana album with the bluegrass singer Alison Krauss. But there was one tune the English singer tried and couldn't nail: an old Stanley Brothers number called "Little Maggie."
"I think we actually murdered it, to be honest," Plant says. "I was trying to work out how to work the vocals, being British. It's a sense of humor that you need to even get anywhere near that stuff, so we couldn't make it work. But then, I thought: The song is great, and I like the sentiment of Little Maggie, she's always off with some no-good, sorry man. I mean, that's what we all are, really."
On his new album, Lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar, Plant gives the song another shot — with a new band. Plant's group is an eclectic bunch, ranging from a West African fiddle player to a British keyboardist known for heavy electronic music.
"It's not about being very good or proficient at any particular style," he says. "It's just about visiting the styles that we're kind of conversant with."
In the Zeppelin days, Plant and his bandmates traveled to North Africa and elsewhere seeking musical inspiration. Over the past few years, he's been living and traveling throughout the Southern U.S. looking for ghosts: that is, the musicians who inspired him as a child, like bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson.
"I was going from Mississippi into Arkansas, and I was thinking about when I was a kid, how I used to listen to these amazing voices and orations, beautiful and stark Afro-American comment in song," he says. "I was going over this rusty old bridge, and I was being welcomed into West Helena by a sign that had fallen into the grass, that had Sonny Boy Williamson sitting playing harmonica on top of a corncob. So it was all the romance of these English kids who were enthralled by music and by reflections of a culture that we knew nothing about."
Plant says he loved exploring the U.S. — but that, eventually, he felt the call of home. Now 66, he's back in England.
"I've got some great kids, and guess what? They've got great kids," Plant says. "So, bit by bit, your role changes. I think I could continue forever as this sort of Peter Pan whizzing around, but I realize that the value of my time is of huge, huge importance. And I had to reconvene with everything that I'd taken for granted previously."
Plant did attend a 2012 event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where Led Zeppelin was honored with a rendition of "Stairway to Heaven" featuring Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart and a gospel choir. The rocker found himself crying as he watched.
"I was really moved that somebody had taken a song which had been brandished and curtsied and cajoled and loved through 40 years, and they'd given it such a great makeover," he says. "I heard it in a totally different way, and I was really amazed that it could have a life outside of anything I expected."
For his part, Plant is hoping to remain unpredictable, too. Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page has talked publicly about getting the old band back together, but Plant is not interested. He says this new album captures exactly where he wants to be: on his own personal journey.