He's delightfully peculiar. Funky. Unique. Though Robert Randolph's music has been classified as a mixture of soul and funk, he consistently shatters any labels that are placed upon him.
Truth is, he's arguably in a class all his own. Case in point: how many African-American, pedal steel-playing, GRAMMY-nominated church musicians do you know? Of those, how many have been named one of the top 100 guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine? There's only one. And at the ripe old age of 29, Robert Randolph is just beginning to push the boundaries of popular music.
Raised in the House of God Church, Randolph decided to carry on the "sacred steel" tradition of his denomination. He played pedal steel guitar in his church's worship band and quickly caught on. After rounding up his sister and several cousins (hence the name Robert Randolph and the Family Band), he started playing in a few non-church settings and their shows quickly began selling out. Warner Brothers Records got wind of his prowess, signed him to a record deal, and before he knew it the band was on tour with guitar great Eric Clapton. Not bad for a church kid who was largely unaware of music outside of his own tradition.
Three albums and scores of glowing reviews later, Randolph has become somewhat of an icon. His latest album, We Walk This Road, is arguably his most eclectic recording to date, due in part to the people he has surrounded himself with. Produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett, the project came together in some rather organic, unconventional ways. "I had a list of songs I'd written before," says Randolph, "and T-Bone also had some ideas. But the biggest thing that influenced this record was our decision to really listen to the bones of American music." The two of them spent hours listening to American roots music, which included everything from old spirituals written in the early 1900's to current popular music. Then they took what they believed to be a good sampling of the last hundred years of American music, and began infusing them with Randolph's signature sound.
The recording process took a total of two years, because Randolph and Burnett were working around already-packed tour and production schedules. They'd work for a few months, move on to other commitments, and then come back together with new songs and fresh ideas. The studio became more of a laboratory than a stage.
"By the time we had gotten way deep into the project," Randolph remembers, "it really turned into an event. T-Bone is connected to so many musicians, and people started coming down to the studio just wanting to hang with us. Robbie Robertson from The Band stopped in, and so did Leon Russell, Elton John, John Mayer and Gregg Allman. It turned into this great event that everybody sort of wanted to get in on. Every day was so much fun, and the various people who stopped by kept the musical blood flowing. One day I texted Ben Harper and said, 'Hey, what are you doing? We're at a studio not too far from your house.' He said he'd come by. After listening to a few of the tracks that weren't finished yet, he goes into the vocal booth and just starts singing. Next thing you know, everybody's eyes light up and we're grabbing pen and paper, writing lyrics. It turned into another great day."
The album samples a century of American music, as interpreted by Randolph and Burnett. Some tracks are covers, including songs originally recorded by Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Prince. Others were written as a collaborative effort between Randolph, Burnett, Tonio K and Peter Case. It was an unconventional process, and oftentimes none of them knew what would happen until they got to the studio.
The song "I'm Not Listening" was born out of a lunch conversation and a television event. "One day we were all having lunch together while T-Bone and Bob Dylan talked on the speakerphone," says Randolph. "We were all just eating, laughing, joking. Next thing you know, we come down [to the studio] and we were just jamming. The drummer started playing, and everyone joined in. So we got this little groove thing going. T-Bone starts mumbling some words, singing along. So we agreed that we had a nice piece of music, and that we should take a break and try to write some lyrics to it. While we were doing that we were watching a presidential debate on TV, and we all agreed that we just wanted to be told the truth. So that's where the lyric 'Keep on talkin', I'm not listenin' came from. We just started writing all these lyrics about anything that was relevant to that."
A similar thing happened while writing the song "Dry Bones." An old spiritual written by James Weldon Johnson in the early 1900s, "Dry Bones" was allegedly used to teach children about anatomy. But Randolph and company were intrigued by the chorus, so they looped it and started jamming to it. "We wondered how we could turn it into an actual song," says Randolph. "So we all just started talking, trying to figure out what dry bones meant. Among other things, we decided that it's an individual who gets worn out over time. That's why we came up with, 'Bones, dry bones, gotta keep jumpin' around.'"
Perhaps one of the most overtly spiritual songs on the album is "I Still Belong to Jesus," which Peter Case wrote while they were all in the studio. It speaks to the idea that though some people are less "orthodox" than others, they can still be children of God. Coming from the background he does, Randolph sees the value in conveying a spiritual message. But he also understands why some people are reluctant to "buy-in" to traditional church systems.
"Some people are afraid of church, and I sometimes blame believers for that," says Randolph. "They say, 'Just give your life to Christ and that's the answer to everything.' But then we're left asking, 'What am I supposed to do when I wake up tomorrow?' If you split up with your wife, curse somebody out, or get addicted to drugs, instead of offering everyday guidance, church people may say, 'I can't believe you did that. What's wrong with you?' And I would respond, 'Everybody's gonna do something wrong. Jesus is and forever will be the only perfect person who's walked the earth.' I grew up my whole life going to church. So I pretty much know what I'm not supposed to be doing and what I need to do. I know how I should treat people. God is the answer to all things, and hopefully that message comes across in our music."
Watch all of the Robert Randolph music videos at Godtube.com.