Secular music was considered contraband in Nathaniel Rateliff’s childhood Missouri home. The family attended a non-denominational Christian church two to four times a week, depending on the holiness of the week in question. Then one day, Rateliff found Robert Plant in a barn—and had a religious experience of the aural variety.
“Some teenagers had been partying in our landlord’s field. They’d taken a riding mower and made a secret path out to the middle of a cornfield. They left a boombox and a cassette of Led Zeppelin IV. I saw it lying in the barn and kinda stole it, I guess, and was listening to it on my little Walkman,” Rateliff confesses.
Rateliff’s dad passed away around the same time, and enforcing the secular music ban dropped off significantly in importance. Even school became less of a priority, and Rateliff dropped out of the seventh grade.
“I tried to study music theory in home school but I wasn’t studious, so I cheated. My mom taught me some chords. And I took drum lessons for a little while.”
Within a year, Rateliff was working for the same grocery store that employed his mom—attempting to carry his own weight in the absence of his old man. Public education was a luxury he could no longer afford. Fortunately, Rateliff was busy being schooled by life. The depth of character he developed in the working world would serve his future songwriting career well. Driving and unloading trucks here in Denver turned out to be appropriate preparation for the get-in-the-van days of his first band Born in the Flood. Over the course of the group’s nine year run, Rateliff graduated from blue-collar truck driving to rocking Red Rocks—Film on the Rocks, Monolith and an opening slot for The Fray. Things were looking up, but downsizing was on the horizon.
“Around 27 or 28, it started to get hard to not lose my voice singing loud stuff. I also felt there were more antics than substance. Not that Born in the Flood lacked substance. It just seemed like the bigger the audience got, the louder we got. It didn’t seem believable anymore.”
In Memory of Loss, an album dedicated to his dad “Bud” (and his first proper release under his birth name), rectified the situation, and ended up resonating deeply with neo-folk revival fans across the pond. Rateliff may have been underrated in The States, but he went to Europe nearly ten times in two years—so many trips that he actually lost track.
“I always kinda wondered whether it was a Denver curse. 16 Horsepower, The Czars, John Grant. European radio’s way better. The way they have things set up makes a lot more sense. If you play a radio station, you get paid. It’s always been like that. Back in the 50s and 60s, black musicians would go over and people loved it. Here, it was still kinda taboo.”
The best was yet to come. Rateliff’s UK profile was further elevated when a British celebrity endorsed Loss tune “Early Spring Till” in his recommended listening list. The particular Brit in question? Legendary Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant. Talk about coming full circle.
“When he was in town, I was outta town. When I was in London, his manager and her sister came to see me. I haven’t actually gotten to speak with him yet. I’m hoping that me and [guitarist/harmonica player/backup vocalist] Joseph get to take a picture with him, ’cause Joseph’s dad’s a huge Zeppelin fan. It’d be nice to give him something framed for Christmas.”
Plant under the tree sounds like the perfect present. Nathaniel Rateliff & his new band The Night Sweats’ self-titled debut is out now on Stax Records. The band plays Illegal Pete’s 20th Anniversary on Sunday, September 6 at Red Rocks. Learn more at NathanielRateliff.com and check out the video for “S.O.B.” below.