Two portraits of Robert Plant: One, the most familiar, at least to those who still picture him as the once and always Led Zeppelin front man, a bare-chested banshee with a mop of blond curls, strutting and posturing at the microphone stand as his band wails relentlessly behind him. The other, an aging, wizened troubadour, still at the helm but considerably more subdued, asserting himself distinctly but showing restraint in deference to the music and his musical companions.
Not surprisingly, there are those who find it difficult to reconcile the two images. They still seem shocked at Plant's transformation from the iconic hard rock god of decades past to the reverent Americana kingpin that emerged alongside bluegrass bard Alison Krauss and subsequently continued his heartland musings with Band of Joy. And indeed, it's easy to see that trajectory as one of the most abrupt right turns ever.
"Who knows what on earth is going on?" Plant himself mused when he talked to New Times prior to the start of his first tour with Band of Joy. "You make a record with a whole bunch of people you never met before, you laugh a lot, somebody gives you some ribs - welcome to the South! - and you get a bunch of Grammys and triple platinum discs and stuff... "
Then again, was this as drastic a transition as it initially appeared? If one looks at clues in Plant's career early on, then it becomes obvious that perhaps this is indeed what he was aiming for all along. So to commemorate his 63rd birthday -- today, August 20th -- let's look at the evidence that suggests that journey from past to present wasn't really so long a leap.
• Plant's current band is called the Band of Joy and includes an impressive crop of leading Americana players, Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott among them. But it ought to be noted that his first band, prior to Led Zep, was also called band of Joy and included future Zep drummer John Bonham.
• Plant's earliest influences went to the heart of American roots music - bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Bukka White and Skip James - and their music informed Led Zeppelin right from the beginning. Songs like "Dazed and Confused," "Traveling Riverside Blues" and "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" were a direct lift from an American blues traddition.
• While country music might not have been a direct part of Zeppelin's repertoire, the music of his homeland certainly was, and the strains of British folk music that seeped into the early traditional music of the American south is undeniable. Led Zeppelin 3 in particular marked a turn in Plant's trajectory that could be directly traced to the mellower muse that's caught up with him more recently. That's particularly true of songs like "Gallows Pole," "Thank You," "Over the Hills and Far Away" and "Tangerine," songs he still performs in his current sets because they fit so seamlessly. "Going to California" is another track that would seem to bridge the divide.
• Plant had another notable duet before he hooked with Alison Krauss, and it found him taking a similar stance. He partnered with the late Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny on the Led Zep song "Battle of Evermore." That led to another connection that lingers to this day; Plant and the Band of Joy include a snippet of Fairport's immortal anthem "Come All Ye" in their set.
• Plant's fondness for seminal '60s music was well established early on, but on his 2007 solo album Dreamland he covered a number of classic roots rock songs -- among them Tim Rose's "Morning Dew," Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren," the Youngbloods' "Darkness Darkness" and Bob Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee." It was an ideal segue way into his Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, which was released later that year and spawned from a similar songbook of Americana influences.
"It's not as if I'm Mick Jagger and I keep going back to the Rolling Stones every time I have a project that doesn't work out," Plant said in that same earlier interview. "I mean, you got to keep moving along... That's what it's all about. You can't stand still."
That's especially true when when you're reaching for your roots.