It began, as so many great things do, over beers in an Irish pub more than a dozen years ago. That's when Robert Plant and Buddy Miller first met and began talking — about music, of course. The topic, of all things, wasn't blues or country but late 1960s West Coast psychedelia.
"To my surprise, he jumped right into a conversation about Love and Moby Grape," Miller recalls, "a lot of the bands I grew up on. We talked for a long time. I guess he took my name away from that."
So it was that when Plant hit the road with duet partner Alison Krauss following the release of their Grammy-winning 2007 album Raising Sand, the onetime Led Zeppelin frontman tapped Miller to play guitar. The Ohio-born Miller was just the man to help bridge the gap between the acoustic sound of Sand and the steamrolling rock 'n' roll for which Plant remains best known. The guitarist, singer and songwriter was a 16-year-old with a third-row seat when the mighty Zep first hit the Fillmore East in New York City on Jan. 31, 1969. Over the ensuing years, though, he became more and more focused on country music. Eventually he made his name as both a solo artist and a crucial collaborator with the likes of Emmylou Harris, his wife Julie Miller, and Steve Earle.
Plant's music since Zeppelin's breakup in 1980 has always been restlessly exploratory and forward-thinking, incorporating sounds from folk and blues to heavy metal and electronica. But Raising Sand brought the native Englishman deep into that amorphous area known as "Americana." The hive mind of Wikipedia describes the genre as "an amalgam of roots musics formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the American musical ethos," which says everything and nothing.
"I don't really know what Americana is," Miller says with a shrug. "It's just the music I like. I don't understand why some people aren't Americana and some people are. I don't really get it, I'm just glad I fit in."
Since 1999, the Americana Music Association has sought to define the genre while expanding it. Artists from Elvis Costello and John Fogerty to Solomon Burke and Allen Toussaint have found themselves onstage at the AMA's annual Honors and Awards show, and Plant showed up unexpectedly with Krauss at the show in 2008. Fans hope he has something similar in mind this year for his Band of Joy: Miller, singer Patty Griffin, multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, bass player Byron House and percussionist Marco Giovino. (The ceremony is set for Sept. 9 at the Ryman Auditorium.)
When Led Zeppelin reunited for a history-making concert at London's O2 Arena in December 2007, promoters dangled the promise of hundreds of millions of dollars in front of the members for a proposed reunion tour. But Plant would not be moved — he was determined to continue following the thread he had begun with Raising Sand to its logical conclusion. He turned to Miller, asking the guitarist to assemble a band that could take him even deeper into the wilds of Americana, adding an electric edge absent from the music he had made with Krauss.
The final, crucial ingredient was another inspired female foil: Griffin, whose most recent album, Downtown Church, Miller had produced. "She can rock hard, she can do a Big Mama Thornton song, and at the same time be the most fragile sounding voice there is," Miller says. "I thought that would work well with Robert, and it did. There's a real chemistry there."
The crew assembled at Woodland Studios in East Nashville. "We knew there wouldn't be any disruptions there, nobody would be poking their head into the studio," Miller says. "We could just hunker down and see what would happen. It's not important that we come out with something, we're just in there for fun and to create. If it works, great. If it doesn't, great."
A couple of weeks later they emerged with Band of Joy, Plant's ninth studio album and one of his finest. Both album and group are named for the outfit Plant was fronting in the mid-1960s when he and drummer John Bonham were drafted to join Led Zeppelin. In that group, Plant recalled recently, "I was playing everybody else's stuff and moving it around, and it's kind of time to reinvoke that attitude and sentiment."
True to that ethos, the songs on the album are drawn from throughout the history of popular music, from the traditional "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" (first recorded in 1931 by South Carolina evangelist Blind Joe Taggart) to the 1960s R&B number "I'm Falling in Love Again" and Los Lobos' 1990 "Angel Dance." Two songs hail from indie-rock band Low's 2005 album The Great Destroyer, while one of the four originals, "Even This Shall Pass Away," draws inspiration from Theodore Tilton's 1867 poem "The King's Ring." Miller's adaptability and range have rarely been so thoroughly put to the test.
"Robert can go from Tinariwen" — a band from Mali that both Miller and Plant rave about — "to Arthur Lee and Love to Sleepy John Estes in a heartbeat," Miller says. "He's all over the place. So musically, we could speak references and shades and tones in a matter of seconds and not have to be scratching our heads. And everybody I brought in was the same, had the same points of reference."
The wide scope of Band of Joy extends to the stage, where the group has spent much of the summer presenting its new music while reimagining Led Zeppelin chestnuts like "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Rock and Roll" as well as Plant solo hits like "Tall Cool One." "Robert isn't one to look backwards," Miller says. "When he wants to do a Zeppelin song, it's because it's a good song — a good enough song that it can stand up to a complete retooling. Any old songs that we do get a completely different treatment. It's not like we're listening to the Led Zeppelin record, figuring out how it goes and playing that. It's the total opposite."
His work with Plant takes top priority for Miller these days, with a European tour set to stretch through November and a fresh run of American dates scheduled for early next year. Still, Miller's own career continues apace. He just finished up a three-show residency at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. "I was given a blank canvas and asked to put together whatever I wanted to do," he says. "It's been a real beautiful thing for me." His playing will be heard on Costello's upcoming album, National Ransom, due out in November. In December he will convene at his home recording studio with Three Girls and Their Buddy, the road-tested collective of himself, Harris, Griffin and Shawn Colvin. March will see the release of the debut album by Majestic Silver Strings, a group featuring Miller, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz alongside a cast of friends that includes Griffin, Colvin, Lee Ann Womack and Chocolate Genius.
"It's funny, man," Miller says. "I had a heart attack and a triple bypass a little over a year ago. I had to take three months off to recuperate. I couldn't really move, because they saw you in half and take your heart out! I had to lie on a couch for two and a half months. I look at my calendar since then and I've been twice as busy as I've ever been in my life.
"It's not because I've got more energy. I feel all right, but it's really because I just like playing with the people I get to play with. I mean, it's hard to say no to Robert Plant."
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