A CENTURY OF AMERICAN MUSIC Robert Randolph

With
his new collection of originals and covers, the sacred steel auteur displays
the fruits of having hung around with greatness.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Growing up, Robert Randolph never dreamed of
becoming a guitar God. In fact, he began playing the pedal steel guitar as a
way to get closer to God, developing his skills at the House of God Church in New Jersey and rarely
listening to secular music. When he was 19, Randolph was given tickets to a Stevie Ray
Vaughn concert, which opened his eyes to a new style of music and new ways of
playing his instrument. He began playing clubs and within a few years was
performing alongside people like Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews and B.B. King.

 

Now considered one of the best pedal steel
players in the world, Randolph’s
latest album, We Walk This Road (Warner
Bros.), is a celebration of the last century of music, placing original tracks
alongside covers of songs by Prince, Bob Dylan and John Lennon. His combo,
Robert Randolph and the Family Band, is rounded out by drummer Marcus Randolph
and bassist Danyel Morgan. We talked with Randolph
about the album, his first in four years, and moving from the church to the jam
band scene.

 

***

 

BLURT: You had a big goal when you made this album, trying
to capture 100 years of music. Where did that idea come from?

RANDOLPH: [Producer] T Bone Burnett
and I had a conversation about making a special record. We said instead of
doing it like everyone else and recording some songs I wrote on the tour bus,
let’s go back over the history of American music. We started with old field
recordings, the stuff guys like Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin
listened to. We said ‘Let’s see if this gives us some inspiration’. We started
in 1910, then next thing you know we got up to the 1970s. We took obscure stuff
from every decade for inspiration. Soon we started writing songs. We’d take
some riffs, loop some stuff and jam to it until it became whole.

 

Even though you’re primarily a secular musician now, you still
deliver an overtly religious message in some of your songs.

Only today do
people think about making a gospel record, a rock record or a blues record. Over
the history of music, guys just sang. One day you’d see a girl, so you’d write
a love song. The next day, you’d have a bad day, so you write a song that says
‘Lord, help me out of this situation.’ Dylan would do that. Half of the great Led
Zeppelin songs are spiritual songs. You can’t take spirituality out of music
because you think it’s not cool. But for me, it’s more direct because of the
fact that I do come from the church and have been in church my whole life.  

 

What made you
decide to start playing in clubs instead of just in church?

Some people
call my church a rock and roll church. It had wailing guitars and screaming,
energy and excitement. Some people said ‘I think this music is so special that
you guys should go out and start playing clubs in New York and see what happens.’ We met a guy
there who lived in Jersey and knew people that
owned some small bars. We started to play every Thursday. At first we had five
people. Next thing you know, five turned into 50. Word started to spread. People
loved the sound and the different musical flavor, and here we are today.

 

Were you surprised at the reaction?

Not really.
When I started playing, I’d go play at other churches and I’d see the reaction,
like ‘Man, this is interesting’. The guys before me were never allowed to go
outside the church and play so they never got a chance to get that kind of feedback.
There were so many great players. In their day, some of those guys could have
been as big as Muddy Waters.

 

Is it a big difference playing in church versus playing in
clubs?

Of course.
Church is church. It’s a spiritual setting. But in terms of my musical
approach, it’s the same – to go out and make music that uplifts people. We know
how special it is coming from the church and how cool it is to be able to play
music that uplifts people spiritually. For us, the mind frame is to bring a
good time and a positive thing to a wider audience.

 

How has your playing style changed since you went from being
a church musician to a secular musician?

Being able to
be out there with other people like Clapton and Santana, you figure out that these
guys are real professionals. If I don’t get better just from hanging around
those guys, I’m just in the wrong business. We all sit around and talk about
music. There’s an old saying, ‘you hang around with a guy long enough that
limps sooner or later you’ll be limping.’ If I hang around with greatness long
enough, hopefully sooner or later I’ll be great.

 

 

[Photo Credit:
Scott Dudelson; check out his Blurt photo blog]

 

 

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