By Brian McManus
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Robert Plant is ebullient.For the first time in his life—specifically, day four of the current Raising Sand tour, celebrating his wildly successful 2007 album with bluegrass beacon Alison Krauss—Plant has traced the footsteps of Daniel Boone and passed through the Cumberland Gap. The tall pine timber of the Smokey Mountains. South Central Appalachia, as it were. And such is his current ardor that he is more than willing to philosophize (at length), directly address Led Zeppelin matters (including the rumored reunion tour), and even throw in a hand job metaphor (or three).
"When I was a kid," he says, "there was a hit record in England by Lonnie Donegan, who was a kind of a skiffle player—which I guess is a sort of a kind of combination of bluegrass and folk. And there was an old song [begins to sing], 'Cumberland Gap/Cumberland Gap/18 miles to the Cumberland Gap,' or whatever it was. So when I flew through from south Kentucky last night, I went, 'Ah, so there we are.' " Yes. The American South—Plant revels in it. The kudzu and kitsch. The history and the mystery. And mystery in the South, like the music of the Plant/Krauss collaboration, simultaneously subsists as both sumptuous and simple.
"Once upon a time," sayas Plant, "all we knew about Elvis was that he sang like a motherfucker. And that was all that mattered. You know, when you gas up and you go to pay inside the gas station and you hear Elvis singing 'Surrender,' you know that the mystery of that guy, at that time, was everything. The voice and the mystery and the not knowing. And I think the great thing about anything that you hear over the waves is, you don't want to know too much, you know?"
In less than an hour of conversation, however, Plant whittles away at regional mystery in favor of appreciation and celebration, leaving in his wake a referential laundry list of influential musicians: Son House, Skip James, Charley Patton, Junior Kimbrough, Howlin' Wolf, Don Gibson, Mavis Staples, Mable John, the Swan Silvertones, Charlie Rich, Johnny Horton (twice), Townes Van Zandt (twice), Elvis (more than twice), Roscoe Holcomb (more than twice), and Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys (both together and separately), among others. Throw in a couple of toss-offs toward Southern staples Church's Fried Chicken and Cracker Barrel, and you've got yourself a rock 'n' roll roots picnic where no one goes hungry. "This country," Robert Plant says, "needs to hear its music."
He continues: "You know, this motel where I just pulled in to talk to you, there's a jacket on the wall where the guy's granddaddy who owns the place got shot by the sheriff for his moonshine thing. And it's a little valley off the Cumberland Gap, and it's still all there. It's grandfathers, grandparents—it's frontier stuff. And some of the songs that we visit, the performances, you know, it's all about beginnings."
The Raising Sand tour begins with a week-long, pre-Europe warm-up: two nights in Louisville followed by Knoxville, Chattanooga, New Orleans (Jazz Fest), and Birmingham. Plant has made this physical pilgrimage before. In the late '80s, he and fellow Zep alum Jimmy Page sauntered into the Mississippi Delta and came out brandishing Walking Into Clarksdale."I wrote the lyrics to that,'" he says of the album's title cut, "because I was just amazed at the otherworldly feeling when you drop south of Memphis onto 61 or 69 or 49 or whatever it is [it's 61], and you go through Tunica and Rosedale. Because I was looking for ghosts, you know. I was just trying to pick up a thread which is kind of gone."
Now he's looking again. In hindsight, pairing a hard-rock legend and the woman with more Grammys in her closet than any female alive might appear a safe bet. But even as Plant calls his partnership with Krauss "a revelation," it may be because when the pair convened in her Nashville living room, neither could conceive of the actual sound.
"We both actually are discovering each other and each other's world, which is such a bonus," Plant says. "I just thought that with a great deal of delicate maneuvering, we might actually find a kind of common ground, and that has been achieved."
For this, Plant credits "a six-foot, four-inch Texan psychobilly called T-Bone Burnett," who produced. "Without him," says Plant, "we have no idea what we would've done. I mean, I was looking at Don Gibson as a kind of framework—'Sea of Heartbreak' and that sort of stuff—and she was looking at Townes Van Zandt a bit, but T-Bone was coming in with some amazing angles. And not only did he have the angles musically, but he had the people that he knew he could rely upon to create the amount of spook that exists within this project. And even more so onstage than on record now."
Thus, with the aforementioned "psychobilly" in charge, the stage—perhaps the very concert hall itself—evokes a certain physical, atmospheric air. As though it's 30 minutes after the daily Gulf Coast summer-afternoon thunderstorm. As if the soundtrack for a Wilco documentary suddenly segued into a slasher flick stuck in terminal anticipation.
Those blind beginnings are long gone. Raising Sand, an independent release of 13 punctiliously picked covers, garnered the pair yet another Grammy (Plant's second and Krauss's 21st), "Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals." And before even that first night in the Bluegrass State, the album became not only the biggest commercial success of Krauss's career, but the bestselling non-Zeppelin Plant disc of the past quarter-century. So, of course, they decided to take that puppy for a walk."
It's almost like automatic pilot to think that there is a tour that goes with an album," says Plant. "I mean, there are so many situations that I wouldn't want to tour in now, because I may have visited certain areas of music too often to actually be excited."
Yes, Led Heads, he's talking to you. Though he's willing to throw his more metallic fans a Zoso bone (or three): The Plant/Krauss set list often includes reworked versions of "Black Dog," "When the Levee Breaks," and "The Battle of Evermore." "There are certain songs which will lend themselves to an absolute, stripped-down situation," Plant says. "And the thing about my singing is, I'm really, really working on moving from style to style within the show, you know. I mean, I think it's such a great challenge. That's where I'm really getting off, because I'm doing so many things differently. And still being whatever I was."
The tour," he says, "just became something to get excited about once we had a personality. But, you know, touring for the sake of touring, for me, after all these years, is just pointless. I have to be excited."
Yep, still looking at you, Zep fans. And just in case you need more: "You can't just borrow the Stones' plane," Plant says. "It's got to have a creative kernel of endeavor and whatever it is, otherwise it won't work, because Zep was about that.
"I mean, if you want the quick tug," he continues, "if you want the $5 massage or the happy ending, you know exactly how to get that. That's a pointless exercise. For me, I just want to do stuff where at the end of the night, I can turn and look at the people I'm working with and go, 'That was not just an achievement—it was one of the most heart-rending experiences I've had.' And that's what happened to me night before last."
The "night before last," Plant and Krauss (and T-Bone and company) played their second show in Louisville, which seems to have provided Plant with everything he could ask from musical roadwork.
"It was almost as if we were, you know, on laughing gas," he says, "because it all worked and it swung like crazy and the stage volume was very, very excellent for what we were trying to do. I mean, you can hear absolutely everything. You can even hear the skin of the banjo, you know. I mean, it's like—it's unearthly at times. Something happened that was much more intense and much more rewarding than any of us had expected. We found that we were going into a place that none of us had been before.
"Obviously," Robert Plant concludes, "this is just the beginning."