Robert Plant is an easy pick to top the list of greatest rock vocalists. Everyone knows his wild banshee wail that can be found on tracks like ‘The Immigrant Song’ and ‘Rock and Roll’, but just as impressive is his ability to hold back in gentle ballads like ‘Going to California’ and ‘All My Love’, play up his funky James Brown imitation on ‘The Crunge’ and ‘The Wanton Song’, or key into his blues influences on ‘You Shook Me’ and ‘The Lemon Song’. His piercing shrieks were first class, but so too was his versatility and range.
So when it comes to answering the question, “What was the hardest song in your career for you to sing?” Plant has plenty of options to choose from. Does he go with a left-field choice, like the upper register funk of ‘Custard Pie’ or upper-range folk freak out of ‘Freinds’? Maybe a more well-known but still incredibly intimidating track, like ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or ‘Whole Lotta Love’? Or perhaps a track that requires a specific voice to pull off, like the mad carnival barker on ‘Hot Dog’ or the old-school rock and roll of ‘Boogie with Stu’?
As it turns out, Plant didn’t even choose a Led Zeppelin song. Because, you know, those are easy. Instead, it was the cover of Dillard and Clark’s ‘Polly’ that he and Alison Krauss reinterpreted as ‘Polly Come Home’ for their 2007 duet album Raising Sand.
“It’s just the most difficult piece of music to sing at the tempo that we sang it at,” he said to Ultimate Classic Rock. “It’s one of the toughest calls I’ve had, apart from my audition in the Yardbirds.”
From those comments, one might expect the song to be at a breakneck tempo, forcing Plant to fit in an absurd number of syllables in very little time. But actually, ‘Polly Come Home’ is a slow and laboured crawl, forcing Plant and Krauss not to jump the gun and bring every ounce of emotion to their performance to sell the song’s lyrics properly.
“The song itself is just, it’s so poignant. And it’s so slow,” Plant explained. “So the very opening line of the song, in my chest, my lungs, my vocal cords, in my sense of timing… It was, ‘How am I gonna get these words right to the end of that bar without collapsing?’ It was just such a beautiful lilt.”
For someone as legendary in the vocal department as Plant, it’s humbling to hear that the most challenging parts of singing involve emotion and intention rather than paint-peeling high notes. Plant sells every bit of love and tenderness that ‘Polly Come Home’ requires, resulting in a beautifully still portrait. Still, c’mon, are you sure it’s not that scream in ‘The Immigrant Song’?