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The Re-Education Of Robert Plant

Robert Plant's new album is lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar. (Courtesy of the artist)

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.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to hear now from a rock God.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN)

ROBERT PLANT: (Singing) There's lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, and she's buying the stairway to heaven.

GREENE: That is Robert Plant singing "Stairway To Heaven" with Led Zeppelin in the '70s. He has covered a lot of ground since then, restlessly pursuing his interests in world music, blues and country. In 2009, he won five Grammys for an Americana album with the bluegrass singer Alison Krauss. So he's versatile, but there was one tune the English singer couldn't nail - an old Stanley Brothers number called "Little Maggie."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE MAGGIE")

STANLEY BROTHERS: (Singing) Oh, yonder stands little Maggie with a dram glass in her hand.

GREENE: So you tried this song when you were collaborating with Alison Krauss. It never made it onto that album. Why not?

PLANT: Well, I think we actually murdered it to be honest, I mean, with great sort of a plum. 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.

GREENE: And so on his new album, Robert Plant gave it another shot with a new band.

PLANT: We went about trying to fix "Little Maggie" the way we would do it and take "Little Maggie" to North Africa, really, with a banjo on her knee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE MAGGIE")

PLANT: (Singing) Yonder come little Maggie with a dram glass in her hand.

GREENE: Plant's group is an eclectic bunch, ranging from a West African fiddle player to a British keyboardist who's known for heavy electronic music.

PLANT: So it's not about being very good or proficient at any particular style. It's just about visiting the styles that we're kind of conversing with.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT PLANT SONG, "LITTLE MAGGIE")

GREENE: I'm so struck by you saying that it's not about doing any one thing really well. I mean, it's really about all of this coming together. I get the feeling that tells us something about Robert Plant in some way.

PLANT: Well, it means I'm not really very good at anything, but (laughter)...

GREENE: (Laughter) I didn't mean that necessarily.

PLANT: Well, you know, I'm a student, and I'm a senior student now. But I'm really keen on these cross pollinations, these melanges of different styles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOR HOWARD")

PLANT: (Singing) Old Howard, poor boy, left me here to jump for joy. Pretty little girl with a red dress on.

GREENE: Back when he was in Led Zeppelin, Plant and his band mates traveled to North Africa and other places seeking musical inspiration. Over the last few years, he's been living and traveling throughout the southern United States looking for ghosts - the musicians who inspired him as a teen, like bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson.

PLANT: I was kind of going from Mississippi into Arkansas, and I was thinking about when I was a kid how I used to sort of listen to these amazing voices and orations, beautiful and stark Afro-American comment in song. And I was going over this rusty, old bridge, and I was being welcomed into West Helena by a sign that had fallen into grass that had Sonny Boy Williamson sitting, playing a harmonica on top of a corncob. So there's this sort of romance of an English kids who were enthralled by music and by the reflections of a culture that we knew nothing about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN IT UP")

PLANT: (Singing) I'm lost inside America, and I'm turning inside-out.

GREENE: And Plant loved exploring the U.S. and meeting people, but a funny thing happened. Robert Plant, who's now 66, felt the call of home. He returned to England.

PLANT: It wasn't so much about saying goodbye to anybody. It was saying hello again to everything I thought I could do without.

GREENE: And you said hello to England and actually made this album in the English countryside after all that time in the United States. Based on everything I've read, it really had you in a reflective frame of mind. What was that frame of mind?

PLANT: Well, the frame of mind is, you know, I've got some great kids, and guess what? They've got great kids. So bit by bit, your role changes. I could continue forever as this sort of Peter Pan, whizzing around, but I realized that the value of my time is of huge importance. And I had to reconvene with everything that I had taken for granted previously.

GREENE: In some ways, Led Zeppelin remains a backdrop for everything that you do, and there was a moment in 2012 at the Kennedy Center here in Washington when Zeppelin was being honored, and they performed a cover of "Stairway To Heaven" with a gospel choir on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")

PLANT: (Singing) There's a lady who's sure...

GREENE: A lot of people focused on your reaction.

PLANT: (Laughter) What a great tactical way of putting it. Yeah. For some reason or another, I found water in my eye socket.

GREENE: That's a very poetic way of saying I was breaking down crying. I like that.

PLANT: Yeah. Well, I wasn't - I didn't break down exactly, really, but I was really moved that someday 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")

CHOIR: (Singing) Dear lady, can you hear the music, and did you know your stairway lies on the whispering ear?

PLANT: I heard it in a totally different way, and I was really amazed that it could have a life outside of anything I expected.

GREENE: And Robert Plant himself wants to be something that no one expected. Former Led Zeppelin band mate Jimmy Page has said publicly that he really wants to reunite the group. Plant isn't interested. He said this new album captures exactly where he wants to be - on his own personal journey.

PLANT: I'm just stumbling around, and I'm very, very fortunate that I keep good company. I'm sort of hoping and kind of having a certain amount of determination to impress oneself first and not go back to type.

I went into type myself, and I became part of a sort of huge movement, which I was very proud of. And I just feel now that I've got to knock myself out. I've got to really be feeling good about what I do. So somebody said to me recently, are you thinking about going to China and absorbing a little bit of that sort of stuff? I said, have you gone nuts? I said, all I want to do is get that blue note out. There's a blue note inside my soul, and there are only certain music forms where that actually resonates and - so I'm not looking for much.

GREENE: Did you feel like you got the blues out - the blue note here?

PLANT: Yes, I certainly did.

GREENE: Well, Robert Plant, it has been a true honor speaking with you. We really appreciate it, and best of luck with the new album.

PLANT: That's very kind of you. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

GREENE: His new album is "Lullaby And The Ceaseless Roar." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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