LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Some things in Robert Plant’s record collection are completely predictable.
Others might surprise you. Like that copy of Low’s “The Great Destroyer.”
“It’s great music,” Plant said of the Duluth, Minn., indie band known for its often slow, atmospheric songs. “It’s always been in the house playing away alongside Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin’ Wolf, you know. There’s room for everything.”
That could be the theme of Plant’s new solo album, “Band of Joy,” an eclectic collection mostly of covers and reinterpretations that showcase the former Led Zeppelin frontman’s range in ways you wouldn’t expect from a singer in his fifth decade at the edge of the stage.
The album — named for a band Plant was in with John Bonham before the two joined Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones — opens with a cover of Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance,” then jumps in several equally unpredictable directions. There are versions of Richard Thompson’s “House of Cards” along with the Low songs “Silver Rider” and “Monkey,” folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s recording of “Cindy I’ll Marry You Some Day,” ”The Only Sound That Matters” by Milton Mapes and Townes Van Zandt’s “Harm’s Swift Way.”
Plant and co-producer Buddy Miller rework the traditional “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” put a funky edge on the 19th-century poem “Even This Shall Pass Away” by Theodore Tilton and provide an original, “Central Two-0-Nine.”
It’s an interesting record — and something completely different than what Plant fans were expecting. Plant seemed to put Led Zeppelin reunion plans on hold to work with Alison Krauss on “Raising Sand,” the Grammy-winning surprise smash produced by T Bone Burnett. And then it appeared he would do a “Sand” follow-up with Krauss.
Instead, he put together an ace band of old Nashville, Tenn., hands and went somewhere else completely. Plant, as he’s proven time and again, is much more interested in seeing new vistas than covering old ground.
“You can’t tell the same story for 40 years and think it’s going to be convincing,” Plant said, “because when I was 19 I met Jimmy Page and I’ll soon be 62. So really I’ve got to be able to move that story round a little bit, change its colours and also believe in it. It’s not a production line. So these adventures are challenging.”
Plant and Miller met when the guitarist came on board during the “Raising Sand” tour. As he has with many of country and Americana’s biggest names, Miller caught Plant’s attention with his versatility and colour.
Plant brought the material he wanted to do and Miller selected band members he thought had the range required. He recommended multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, bassist Byron House and drummer Marco Giovino — a group that could run the obstacle course of rock, pop, blues and gospel that Plant threw out.
“It’s like a gathering of friends,” Miller said.
He was sure there was something missing, though, as they started to flesh out the songs.
“I don’t know what to call it but there was definitely a hole there,” Miller said.
“You just needed a girl, that’s all,” Patty Griffin said.
Miller’s longtime friend planted that idea when she first heard about “Band of Joy.”
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m a fan you know,’” the singer-songwriter said. “I said, ‘I’ll come and I’ll whistle.’ I was making whistling audition tapes for Buddy, ‘Play that for Robert.’”
Eventually she made her way into the room and everyone took notice.
“I knew early on their voices would sound great together and, I don’t know, there’s really something cool about the songs that they sing together on the record,” Miller said.
That’s especially true of the two Low songs, which feature Plant and Griffin reproducing the sometimes harrowing harmonies of husband and wife singers Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. But Griffin’s not on every song and she doesn’t share the marquee with Plant, as with Krauss on “Sand.”
This was his project and Miller said Plant knew exactly where he was going at all times. Plant packs it with interesting touches throughout.
There’s his Muddy Waters phrasing on “Central Two-0-Nine,” the bass line right out of Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint on “You Can’t Buy My Love” and, yes, he does sound like a young Mick Jagger on “The Only Sound That Matters.”
“It’s a great song, but that’s the way to sing it. What an underestimated singer,” Plant said of The Rolling Stones frontman, whom he jokingly called “the old crow.”
“It was just so beautiful and delicate,” Griffin said of Plant’s vocal. “His singing on it is delicate in this way I’ve never heard, and I’m a fan and I go way back.”
And that surprise is exactly what Plant is aiming for.
“I’ve got to sing the song,” Plant said. “I’ve got to craft, move around, get into people’s heads and into their gifts and bring it out so that you can revisit this stuff. … You have to revisit these things and you have to give them some dignity, these songs, because they don’t last forever. It’s not ‘White Christmas,’ you know.”