A Conversation with Robert Randolph
FG: You know, it's just amazing, taking the world by storm with a pedal steel guitar. I mean, nobody even bothered to say that couldn't be done. Everybody knows that can't be done!
Robert Randolph: Yeah, it was--we're just having fun, man, playing, recording, and making a record. It's been great.
FG: It's just unbelievable. I was rooting around on the net this morning. I'm a big pedal steel fan--I'm a Nashville guy, you know. But is it known for sure who actually invented the pedal steel guitar in its more or less current form?
RR: I'm sure it is. I don't know that much history on the instrument, and which guy--it was one of the country music guys.
FG: It wasn't one of the Hawaiians but a country western cat who came up with it?
RR: The pedal steel, yeah. The lap steel was a Hawaiian instrument. But pedals and all that, it's country. I'm not sure if it's Alvino Ray or Buddy Emmons or one of these other guys. I'm not sure which guy it is.
FG: Right. I think Alvino Ray may be taking credit, but I thought that, oh, it must go back before that. But yeah, maybe that's it after all, him or Emmons or somebody.
FG: But it was a Mr. Eason who brought it into the House of God, is that right?
FG: We always feel that our interview subjects are uniquely revealed when they talk a little bit about their cronies. Would you give us a little bit on each of the Family Band guys?
RR: Oh, well, with Danyel, he plays the bass, and he's a singer and ultimate musician, and he's a great guy.
FG: Is he a blood cousin?
RR: Yeah. And Marcus Randolph, he keeps the tempo and keeps us all going, through the record and while playing a show and whatnot. And John Ginty, I met him some years ago. He added that kind of gospel style organ a lot of people are familiar with.
FG: Where did you run into Ginty and his playing?
RR: In New Jersey. When we started out playing in some small bars there, he came along and started playing, and it sounded good.
FG: He's a hell of a B-3 guy.
RR: Yeah. He plays it really good, like soul stuff.
FG: Yeah. I saw that Neal Casal [a U.S. singer songwriter who found a strong following in Europe] is singing some backing vocals on the record. Is he an old Jersey friend?
RR: Yeah. We met him--it's like the same story. We met him somewhere along playing in Jersey. So I've known him probably the last four or five years.
FG: Ah, so he was there before you really got anywhere yet.
RR: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Uh-huh. He's on some of my early demos, he sang with us.
FG: Wow. Yeah, he's a really talented cat.
FG: What are you reading lately and what are you listening to?
RR: Listening to some Led Zeppelin.
RR: Some Ray Charles, his old stuff.
FG: That's an excellent mix.
RR: Yeah, I'm listening to all old music, man. But actually, there's this European singer, she made a record. A lot of people know about it, but it was a strange record that I picked up. Her name is Julie Mancini.
FG: And you're listening to that.
RR: Yeah, yeah. She's a guitarist and singer. I just picked this record up, and she's awesome. I forget what label it's on. But it was just something strange, like I just saw a woman playing a guitar, and it just said "Julie" on it, on the CD, and I just picked it up and listened to it. It was amazing. There's a song on there, I'm ready to record it probably for the next record.
FG: No kidding!
FG: Well, that's how we've found some of our favorite artists, we're turned onto them by other artists in interviews. And so, yeah, we'll look up Julie Mancini, see if we can find her stuff.
RR: See if you can hook it up, man. You should be able to find it. I remember somebody explained to me that I guess it was probably never really released over here. It was a European kind of thing.
FG: I was first told about you a couple of years ago by my friend Steve Kimock. Have you guys done a gig together? Do you know his music?
RR: Yeah, I know his music, yeah. He's really awesome.
FG: He was the first guy to say, "Oh, you got to get onto Robert Randolph, man." [see our interview with Steve] And so I'm happy now that--it's been a year and a half but we're finally on the phone with you.
Robert was driving, and we'd started to have some cell phone issues, a series of callbacks and all that.
RR: Hey, I'm calling you from another phone now.
FG: Okay, beautiful. I did an interview with your friends the North Mississippi Allstars, yesterday on their bus. They were talking good about you.
RR: Oh, yeah, those guys are great, man. I mean, the first time I ever played a show was opening up for those guys a couple years ago. So cool, man, they can get it tight.
FG: And what an unbelievably nice pair of brothers they are.
FG: So we're going to get the Allstars and the Family Band on the next cover together, because those two bands belong together, don't they?
RR: [laughs] Yeah. We actually play a lot of shows together too, so... We tour a lot, and that's basically how the Family Band got started, opening shows for those guys.
RR: So that's how it goes. And their new record is coming out too, in a couple weeks.
FG: Yeah, Polaris, that's an amazing record. Have you heard the advance yet or anything?
RR: Yeah, I heard it.
FG: Yeah, you heard it. I love the pop tunes on that record.
FG: It's interesting the corner they're turning there. [see our interview with the Dickinson brothers in this issue]
FG: It's really cool
FG: So would you talk with us personally for a minute, about your relationship with God? How would you characterize it? Not exactly your usual rock 'n' roll question, but...
RR: No, but... Well, I grew up in a church. And my parents, early on when I was a kid, always taught me how to understand who God is and what he does for everyone, and how he keeps us all in line, and he is the ultimate being, he's the one that we only have to answer to. And it's kind of how I live my life. He's ultimate, he is to be thanked for everything that happens with us, because at any point in time, he's the one who could take it away.
RR: And I can say I'm not the most spiritual person, but I know that I'm spiritual minded, and I'm always trying to get in that groove, where peace and brotherhood rules.
FG: In the age of the Bling Bling epidemic, your message is definitely coming from a much different place.
RR: Oh, it has to be. I mean, I just don't understand the mentalities of some of those guys who sing about some of that stuff, but we like to do otherwise. We just keep giving people some positive messages, keep them singing and dancing. And keep them happy about life. You know?
FG: Yeah, it's a beautiful message, and it's simple, and it's back to values that made a lot more sense to me, and to you, apparently.
RR: Oh, thanks.
FG: I sure appreciate it. When you get a little time off, where you do you go to get away?
RR: I like to go home, man.
FG: You go home.
RR: Back to New Jersey, yeah.
FG: No exotic locations yet.
RR: No, just like to go home and turn on the TV, watch some good football, basketball.
RR: Cook out on the grill.
FG: I hear that. What about your first steel mentor, Ted Beard? Is he alive and well?
RR: Oh yeah, he's alive, him and Calvin Cooke as well. Calvin has a record that'll be coming out very soon.
FG: Is he a sacred steel guy?
RR: Yeah, yeah. He's one of the early mentors, too. He's one of the early players.
FG: Calvin Cooke. I'm going to go back and get a little learning.
FG: Do you know what label Calvin Cooke will come out on? Is there like a sacred steel label or--
RR: No, I'm not exactly sure which one.
FG: Okay. We'll search him out. [calvincooke.com]
RR: If I can find out, probably call you back and let you know.
FG: How do Calvin and Ted, these early mentors of yours and some of the originators of the sacred steel, how do they feel about their student's rising stardom?
RR: Oh, they're happy about it, because these guys played for years and years and years. They wanted to become that, but they just couldn't do it because they had a heavy, heavy commitment to the church. And it was different back then, back in those days. So they're really happy about it.
FG: It's an unbelievable and unpredictable tradition that sprang up. Was it just in that part of Jersey that the pedal steel was brought into the House of God, or was it kind of a national thing?
RR: No, it was more sort of a national thing. That's how it is today, where there's different churches and things like that that go on, and people play pedal steel. It's more a national thing.
FG: And it's the worship instrument in the House of God more than the organ, is that right?
RR: Yeah, exactly.
FG: That's interesting, because I've always thought that it's an eerily human sounding axe. I mean, it really sounds like somebody crying and somebody laughing, you know.
RR: Yeah. I mean, that's the way we was taught up to play it, like a singer moans and groans and weeps and hollers and screams, like the old Southern Baptist singers. You know how people in church go [singing] mmm-hmmm, and do a lot of moaning and carrying on.
FG: Right. [laughs]
RR: That's how like we was taught to play, off those singers.
FG: Well, you're making it do all that and a whole lot more today. I'll tell you, wow.
FG: So tell us please about the project--that I haven't been able to lay my hands on yet, but I'm working on it--called The Word, that brought you together with John Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars.
RR: I think those guys had heard me play on one of the old recordings--I mean, not that old, but like a couple years. It was 2000 or something like that.
FG: Was that live at the church?
RR: Yeah, yeah. So what happened, they had this idea of recording this record, and then they needed another guy to like make it all happen. I think once they heard that recording I was on, they basically asked me to come on board and do it with them. And it turned out to be cool.
FG: In helping our readership to find that record, do you know what label it's on, or the easy way to get that?
RR: I'm not sure if there are many copies still printed up out there. I'm not sure.
FG: Right. Okay. Well, I'll track that down and make sure everybody can find it who's got to get it, because I know I'm one of the people who's got to get it now.
RR: Yeah, I don't think there are many copies out there, because there were some business things that went on with that, some bad decisions that some people in that company made.
RR: But you should be able to find some somewhere. [try Amazon.com]
FG: So yeah, from the House of God to the club and right to the top of the huge and enthrallable jam band scene, and then right to VH-1. Lord in heaven, that's a hell of a ride.
RR: Yeah. It's... [laughs] Yeah, it is.
FG: [laughs] What's it like and how are you processing that meteoric rise?
RR: It's fun. It's every day, a process, and you just got to kind of stay focused and keep the love for music and keep it all rolling.
FG: Yeah, because with such a fast growing list of people blowing smoke every day--
FG: --you really got to keep your head straight, know that it's just really about God, it's about the tunes and it's about the band.
RR: Yeah, basically. And it's about still standing true to who we are, but at the same time, keeping the music rolling and making people happy and things like that.
This interview originally
appeared on pure music.com