Robert Randolph and the Family Band just released their fifth studio album, “Got Soul,” in February 2017. During a recent phone interview with encore, Randolph admitted the record was just as fun to make as it is to listen to. When it comes to recording, he has it down to a simple science: “When everybody starts smiling and laughing, and everybody feels good, everything’s connected. That’s when you know you’ve got a good version of a song.”
Joined by drummer Marcus Randolph, Lenesha Randolph (vocals), Ray Ray Randolph (bass), and Brett Haas (guitar), they’ll play Throne Theater on May 20. Frontman Randolph is best known for his pedal-steel guitar, also known as “sacred steel.” He uses his platform in music to share his knowledge and roots of the instrument.
While it originated in Hawaii and is oft-used to complete country band ensembles, its history derives from Pentecostal churches in the ‘30s. Randolph was trained as a pedal-steel guitarist in the House of God Church in New Jersey. He found the instrument to be a virtual well of untapped potential, in terms of what it could do and how it could sound. As an inner-city kid growing up in church, Randolph has developed a style of sacred steel music that has influenced the likes of Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Derek Trucks, The Allman Brothers, and countless musicians.
“We all have a story and a journey,” he says. “The first time I met Eric Clapton . . . we wound up talking for an hour-and-a-half—just explaining the story of how and where [sacred steel] came from.”
Randolph is doing for the pedal steel what Robert Johnson or Jimi Hendrix brought to the electric guitar: simply opening up new worlds for an instrument that’s not necessarily new. “Ray Charles once said, ‘I could never play everything this piano has to offer and I’ve been playing for 50 years,’” Randolph recounts. “That’s what makes music great and having so many different musical styles and artists—Chet Atkins, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry—each has a different style, and not one of them could play what the other one could play.”
Randolph uncovered new range and sounds while making “Got Soul.” Songs like “Travelin Cheeba Man,” “Got Soul,” “Be the Change,” and “Gonna Be Alright,” all were created from him fumbling around on the pedal steel in his house, during sound check, on the bus, or in a hotel room. For him, it’s all about exploration and keeping an open mind.
“One of the cool sounds—or one of my favorites—is really making [the pedal steel] moan and all the different slides I do,” he explains. “It’s almost like two different things: I go real low and do these moans that every church person would go, ‘Uh, oh! That’s the deacon down there.’ And then come up high and that reminds you of Aretha Franklin—that’s really kind of hard to do and control, but when you can, it’s just like, wow, that feels so good.”
Randolph lives by a responsibility to bring song, dance, light and love to the stage. One thing he’s come to realize as an artist is everyone has a niche of sorts. “I want to be the guy who brings positivity and inspiration and joy, as well as having people rock and dance and feel sexy and beautiful at the same time, and confident,” he explains. “At the end of the day, we’re all here for each other.”
Aside from sharing the love, Randolph is a spiritual person, His roots in gospel shine bright and allow him an opportunity to share something he may not otherwise be able to and on a large stage.
“When we’re making music, many of us artists have the power of the microphone to really tell the truth and bring positivity,” Randolph says. “So it’s really important to me to bring my background in gospel forth.”
But this isn’t necessarily about reading the Bible, Quran or Torah. Contradictions and radical ideologies exist among all religions and when meshed with politics—or the entertainment of politics, in this day and age—Randolph sees everyone more in the realm of human than labels. He zeroes in on learning to converse and exchange embrace each other as we sculpt world views.
“There are people who will take scripture or the word and try to twist it into whatever they want to believe instead of what it really means,” Randolph says. “That’s always played into politics and the history of the country—and, really, into the world. But if everybody looks into each other, that outweighs all of that.”
“Be the Change” carries along in that vein. Randolph wrote it with Chuck Cannon in Nashville around the same time of the 2016 presidential debates. “There was so much negativity being shot back and forth and back forth,” he remembers. “[‘Be the Change’] is really about, if you want to see the change, you really need to be the change—everybody’s really got to look at themselves, what they’re doing and how they’re acting. It’s important to give people a positive of message.”