THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN blues and roots music is more than littered with examples of artists who have made the transition from passionately playing gospel at church to stalking the secular stages. These musicians often walk a tightrope, straddling both worlds, playing “the devil’s music” on Saturday nights and spreading “The Word” on Sunday mornings. Robert Randolph got his start playing pedal steel guitar, otherwise referred to as Sacred Steel, at the House Of God Church. These days, he can be found sitting in with everyone from the Dave Matthews Band and Carlos Santana to Joe Walsh, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy. In between shows with his Family Band, Robert took some time to chat with Red Hot Rock Magazine.
Conversations Conducted February 18 and 21, 2014
RED HOT ROCK MAGAZINE: Hi, Robert.
ROBERT RANDOLPH: Hey, man. How’s it goin’?
RHRM: Right off the bat, please let me say that it is an honor speaking to you. I have been looking forward to this. Over the last several years, you are really one of the guys that has been keeping the classic-sounding slide guitar alive. You with your pedal steel and Ben Harper and Derek Trucks and a handful of others. Top-shelf talent. And it is such a thrill to witness the joy with which you play and with which you communicate with an audience.
RR: Well, you know, that’s just one of the things that we learned from, you know, growing up in church. Our church was all about… It wasn’t just playing music. It was about having an interaction with the audience and knowing what’s going on around you and really having it be sort of this joyous occasion and having the music and the notes sort of…this whole, you know, just who you are and a sense of togetherness that creates these choruses and guitar riffs that sort of seem sort of unselfish.
RHRM: The subject of positivity is one on which I would like to stay for a moment. With all of the madness in the world, how are you always able to appear so up and positive and to be sending, for lack of a better term, good vibes out into the universe? I mean, I am sure that there are times, like with every human being, where you are a little down or tired and you need to give yourself a little push.
RR: Well, I mean, you know, when a guy like me is coming up in church and in the inner city and all of that, here in Jersey, in North New Jersey, and kids gettin’ murdered and all these things, but always having, you know, that sense of growing up in church and knowing what are actually the worst scenarios and all those other kind of things. It kind of helps me to sort of keep things, life, in perspective and be able to encourage others through music. It all goes back to growin’ up in church and what we were taught and, you know… I think sometimes that people get overwhelmed and think that everything’s in money and everything’s in what we have and all these different things. And they don’t always understand that as long as you have a roof over your head and you’re breathing, that’s the most precious thing. Money comes and goes. Hardships come and go. Hard times come and go. You just gotta be able to stay levelheaded, you know. And so, just through music, I just try to write songs that really kind of don’t focus on any negativity at all. I just really try to paint these scenarios and use some metaphors through the music that sort of helps people just be positive. The more you don’t speak about the negativity, the more, you know, you can sorta…it doesn’t become a part of who you are. I mean, that’s just my concept. And I kind of relate a lot of it to hip-hop music. Hip-hop was a thing to where it started out as a culture, you know, guys speaking…. Early on, you had guys like NWA and a lot of these other guys. They were speaking out about the politics of police brutality and all of those things in the inner cities. And you see how that’s really gotten better. But now, it’s sort of, hip-hop has gone backwards to really, you know, it’s all about drugs and being at clubs… And a lot of these kids look at that and they go, “Oh, that’s just who we are. That’s it. We’re nothing else.” So, for me, with music, I just try to paint another picture for people. Everybody thinks we grew up down south in the suburbs. No, we grew up around all of that stuff in the inner cities of New Jersey in a Pentecostal church, all of our family history is church, you know, we grew up in the church. I mean, look, there are some issues there in the church, too. But, for me, I was able to be able to use the power of the microphone and all of that stuff to be able to inspire a bunch of people, you know. And that’s what I’ll continue to do. But, like I said, through music… That’s why when I’m sitting in the studio, man, I’m writing songs, I’m always tryin’ to figure out what, you know, this’ll move people, this’ll bring joy, this’ll bring happiness, and let the notes of the music surround some sort of message that makes you wanna get into a different mindset. Going back to the example of hip-hop, it’s like you’re not allowed to be able to accept what the early hip-hop music was because record companies will come in and throw you away because they’ll go, “That’s not negative enough”. Ha ha. I had a record label guy, he told me once, “Well, this all your people will buy. We keep putting out this stuff because they don’t want to hear anything else.” That’s just been the perception of hip-hop music and the consumers of hip-hop. Whereas guys like James Brown, Micheal Jackson and Prince, all of the blues guys… If you look at guys like Jack White, who’s embraced a lot of the old blues stuff, as well as the The Black Keys, Derek Trucks and Susan (Tedeschi), you know. That’s the stuff that winds up living on. And I actually tell a lot of kids… I speak at a lot of different…just on panels and things like that, to encourage a lot of kids. All a lot of kids see from a black artist is being some hip-hop thug guy and, “Oh, this is my only way out of the ‘hood.” Where it’s just like, hey man, look at all of the Motown, look at all of the Stax, you know, I can give you prime examples. Ha ha. And those were worse times than what we’re living in now. I mean, you’re talking segregation and really no money and eight, nine, ten people living in a house and all this kind of stuff. And, you know, those guys came up through that stuff and were able to create positive messages of love. And really a lot of those people came from church. Look at Isaac Hayes and mostly everybody at Motown. They all came from church backgrounds where you really get that upbringing, that training. That’s really how the music connects. ‘Cause in church you really learn to connect with an audience. At a young age, you’re put in front of audiences and so forth. So that’s why I always go back to me growing up in church. And you see how the history of gospel music has influenced everything else, from rhythms to… You look at the way James Brown and Little Richard… All that goes back to movements of people at church. Not just singing and playing, but having this joy and bringing about this dancing and so forth, which brought out rock’n’roll. Before that, there were guys just sittin’ there… But yeah, that’s the basis of it all, you know.
RHRM: I would like to ask you a little about the lap and pedal steel, the Sacred Steel, tradition and how it began. I understand that in the church from which you come, going back almost 100 years, these instruments were introduced because the church could not afford organs. Is that correct?
RR: Yeah, yeah. That’s correct.
RHRM: It’s really interesting how things like that sometimes, with music, happen by accident. Then you have this incredible tradition that grows out of the circumstance of the churches not being able to afford the organs.
RR: Well yeah, that’s what happened. And you see how this style of slide guitar has influenced all these other guys now, from Derek Trucks to (Eric) Clapton to all of the guys. And then all of the guys that listened to Sacred Steel when it really first got recognized in the mid ‘90s, you know, all of the guys that followed that. They kind of… There’s all of those stories, from Carlos (Santana) and Eric and Robert Plant and all of these guys, they tell me, “Oh man, remember on the first Sacred Steel record, you know, the one that you were on, and you’re comin’ from church…” It’s great. As Eric Clapton said, “I thought I heard every kind of guitar playing, every kind of voicing until you came along.” He’s like, “The last thing for us to discover was basically reggae music.” He had heard all of the Middle Eastern stuff and everything else. And then reggae, you know, he got introduced to those guys in the ‘70s. And that was it for them, you know, other than Eddie Van Halen. Ha ha. Everything else was sort of, “Oh, OK. Here’s this great guitar player. He’s playing licks.” It’s really great to be a part of the next sort of… to be one of the guys that really got a lot of the older guys excited about new guitar licks and guitar riffs and so forth. That’s really a great thing. That’s what makes it cool.
RHRM: Those are some of my heroes you are mentioning and I’m sure some of yours, as well. It must be an incredible thrill to have them complimenting you that way.
RHRM: I also understand that the Church did not want or even would not allow these musicians, the ones that came before you, to venture out into and to play in the secular world. Was that because the Church wanted gospel music to stay in the church or was it because the Church did not want the church musicians to begin playing secular music? Or was it a combination of both?
RR: Well, it’s probably the history of all churches. Our church is a little more old time in this current day and age. But, I mean, all churches were always like that. If you look at stories of Aretha, Marvin Gaye and all those guys, that’s just one of the things of growing up in church. They see you there and they go, “Oh, you got this gift from being here and now you’re gonna take it out to the world” and so forth and so on. At the end of the day, everything has to be exposed in order for anything to grow. And our church was way more strict than a lot of other church organizations out there. And they didn’t allow, until I stepped out… And they actually still don’t allow some of those other younger guys that’s comin’ up and playin’. But now, people don’t pay it any mind any more. All of the older guys like the Campbell brothers and Aubrey Ghent and all of those guys, those guys that grew up before me, you know, Calvin Cooke, they really weren’t allowed as young guys to go out and play.
RHRM: What type of feedback did you get from the Church when you started playing in bars and other secular venues?
RR: Well, there was always a lot of negative feedback, you know, but I was a young kid. So I didn’t really pay it any mind. That’s life. That’s always how it is.
RHRM: Ha ha. I know that the cover art for your most recent album, Lickety Split, can most probably be read several ways. But the Church must have been in an uproar over what it looked like at first glance, the rock’n’roll devil’s horns.
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Photo credits: Sam Erickson, Brad Gregory, Erika Harlitz Kern