Beyond Sacred Steel

Audio: Use controls to play, pause, etc.

Download Robert Randolph: Audio Interview (mp3, 4.6 MB).

An Interview with Robert Randolph

Robert RandolphIn an interview, pedal-steel guitarist Robert Randolph once suggested that somebody would come along and be the instrument’s Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix.

When I asked him recently where that put him in the pedal steel’s development, the singer/songwriter/guitarist appeared to backtrack a little. “Somebody has to put me there,” he said of the class of guitar revolutionaries that includes Hendrix. “I wouldn’t put myself there.”

But based on his own criteria, that class is probably where Randolph belongs.

As Eric Clapton told Randolph, Hendrix was laughed off as a novelty when he arrived on the scene because of the ridiculous range of sounds he could coax from the six-stringed guitar. Yet “that guy Hendrix has transformed all of guitar music,” Randolph said.

Similarly, it doesn’t seem a stretch that Randolph could transform and elevate the pedal-steel guitar in the public mind. His playing has the tonal breadth, detail, and surprise of Hendrix’s, and the instrument’s roots in Hawaiian and country music are barely discernible in his heavy funk.

The pedal steel — played with both hands, both knees, and both feet, with four pedals, knee levers, a bar on one hand, and a pick on the other hand — is already a versatile instrument. “The innovative mind can create a whole other sound,” Randolph said, and his 13-stringed instrument has “probably about the range of the piano.” In church, he said, “we were taught to play it like a singer.”

Some pedal-steel players were happy to perform in services or in small jazz clubs, Randolph said. “I’m much more of a bigger thinker than that,” he said. “My thing is much more beyond sacred steel [a label applied to the instrument’s use in worship]. It’s a much wider thing than steel guitar, period.”

His goal, he said, is to expand the instrument, “for it to be played in a way that nobody can tell you how it should sound ... the same way that Hendrix did with the guitar.”

And not unlike Hendrix, Randolph’s reputation was built on live performance, and he’s working to build a similar esteem for his songwriting.

Randolph is a pedal-steel-guitar prodigy with serious soul and funk, and his infectiousness is perfectly captured in “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That,” the lead track of Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s Colorblind from 2006. Whether you love guitar heroics, uplifting gospel, or butt-shaking funk, the song has it all.

It’s not a great song, but as a celebration of diversity, it is a great party tune, and the album — the group’s second from the studio — emphasized writing in a way the band hadn’t previously. “My main goal is always to create music that’s joyous and has that upbeat feel,” Randolph said last month, “but also with this one the writing process to have some songs that could last 30 and 40 and 50 years from now — some classic songs.”

It’s a sign of maturity that Randolph, who’s still in his 20s, recognized that his elders have a lot to teach him. Colorblind is full of collaborations, from producers Drew & Shannon on “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That” to guest guitarist Clapton on “Jesus Is Just Alright” to co-writer and guest Dave Matthews on “Love Is the Only Way.” And Randolph said he’s learned a lot from the people he’s toured and worked with since the band’s Live at the Wetlands debut in 2002.

As Randolph describes it, he and the band started in New Jersey’s Church of God, broke out into the jam-band scene, and are now learning the art of songcraft. He compares that to the progression that Clapton told him about. “When I started out, it was just about playing guitar. After a while, he was just like, ‘Wait a second. The guitar helps me get melodies, which will help bring out words from these melodies. It’s not just all about playing guitar solos and jams.’”

Working with other people, Randolph said, is a way to avoid the insularity of a band setting. Keeping it within the band, he said, is akin to “putting ourselves in a box.”

New people bring in fresh ideas, he said, adding that he doubted that “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That” would have ever been developed without the advice of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, with whom he worked on a Sly & the Family Stone tribute. Collaborators, Randolph said, will stop you and make you step back: “Look what you just skipped over. This is another great idea that you should try and get a hold of,” Randolph said. “When you have somebody else there to hold your hand and guide you along, certain things will come out that you didn’t think were there to begin with.”

“Love Is the Only Way” was a song Matthews considered recording with his own band, but it was transformed in a Family Band setting. It’s lower-key than most of Randolph’s material, but his guitar gives it an electric buzz, and it retains a soulful groove.

“We’ve grown now, knowing how to keep the machine rolling, keep the creative machine flowing, and not run out of ideas,” Randolph said. “We’ve probably written another 100 songs since that record been out.” A hundred since September? “Easily. I just wrote three more the other day.”

In some ways, it’s surprising that Randolph has gotten this far. Sacred steel has its origins in the 1930s, and there are generations of players who never got an audience beyond the church; the pentecostal church discouraged performance outside of worship.

But Randolph had the benefit of rebellious youth. For many players, he said, “just playing in church ... was the greatest thing possible. ... For those guys, it’s always been harder because they’re much older than I am. ... When I was doing it, I was 20, 21 years old. ... They had their heart snatched out of them when the church told them they can’t play there anymore. For me, it was just, ‘Oh well. I’ll go to another church. That’s just how it is.’”

And now he’s playing on Ozzy Osbourne’s records and jamming with Prince. “It’s coming,” he said, “and it’s happening really fast.”

But he still hasn’t found that next guy, the person he’d be comfortable calling the pedal steel’s Hendrix. That person will make him think, “Wow. That’s really crazy. I can’t even figure out how to do that kind of stuff.”

Which is exactly what a lot of people say about him.

This article was originally published, in slightly different form, in the River Cities’ Reader.

Leave a comment