Robert Randolph's Family plan

How the world’s premiere steel guitarist rekindled success and fulfillment in the Family


Something incredible happened last summer, but somehow it went unnoticed. Of course, if you are truly hip, you noticed. You have this album and this story is old news. If you were sleeping, like I was, you missed a bright, shining spot in a somewhat dull year: Robert Randolph and the Family Band released perhaps the best album of the band’s career.

Most of you already know the story about this humble guy and his band of brothers and friends – how he exported a very insular and original sound from a small Northeastern U.S. denomination called the House of God Church. It’s sometimes called “Sacred Steel,” and it turned the ears of everyone from music critics, jam band enthusiasts, rockers, blues masters, guitar freaks and even Eric Clapton himself, who tapped the young band as a supporting act for some of his big one-day festivals and touring.

If you somehow missed this musical revolution, you only missed what writer John Thompson calls “probably the best thing to happen to rock and roll in the past 30 years.” The outside world probably heard from Robert Randolph first the way they should have – with a live album. It was probably either the band’s first album, Live From the Wetlands, or the compilation album from John Medeski and the North Mississippi All-Stars, The Word. It captured this wonderful new sound that seemingly stretched the limits of guitar, or at least sweetened it to a whole new level. Imagine the soulful blues of Steve Ray Vaughan and the controlled chaos of a Jimi Hendrix. It’s head-turning, ear-bending and mind-blowing all wrapped into one. When I first saw this guy and his band tearing down a giant ballroom stage in Nashville, I felt the strongest sense of flesh and spirit, love and worship, romance and reverence.

It’s magic. Certainly not run of the mill. It’s probably physically impossible to attend one of his shows and yawn, no matter how tired you are. Energy and soul just explode from that lap pedal steel instrument and a band that knows how to lock in a groove. Fast-forward past three studio albums (Unclassified, Color Blind and We Walk this Road) and the complacency of time steps in, the public’s attention span so easily distracted. It made for some great songs to add to their live set (like “I Need More Love”), but it didn’t exactly capture the magic found at any of their live shows. The band that gave rock and roll a shot in the arm needed one itself.

Lickety Split is a hopeful sign that there’s still people in this record industry that haven’t forgotten what soul is. The band was given the privilege and responsibility of producing it themselves, and a legendary engineer was inserted to do just what he’s known for – capturing magic. Eddie Kramer got behind the mixing board and the result is truly special. It doesn’t take too many tracks into the album until the listener is likely to raise his or her hand to emulate the album cover graphic.

I had the pleasure of chatting on the phone with Robert Randolph during my lunch break while parked behind the Palmer Events Center in Austin as forklifts and semis circled around in preparation for the South By Southwest Conference. He was enthusiastic to talk about his latest album, which is still on his mind as the band lays down tracks for a new one.

“Lickety Split is really full of energy and really captured who we are – all the mixtures of blues and gospel,” he said to me. “We were able to do a couple of great covers. We had a chance to go into the studio and really play a lot of the stuff live and have the engineers just really help us out and really craft out something that sounds really different in the music marketplace today. We sort of got back to the roots of who we are.”

I feel like you really captured the balance between being tight yet loose. It doesn’t sound like you’re just live in the studio. It sounds like a well-crafted album.
For me it was just kind of really trying to have that mixture of things you can really just jam out to and feel organic, but also sound like who we are but without the effects or trying to craft out all these other things. It was a mixture of all that. First and foremost, we had to get in the studio and just get in the room and play the songs. A lot of people really don’t record music like that anymore – they don’t all just sit in a room and play. A lot of times bands will just piece together their songs. Usually you have some demos that some guy plays guitar to and some guy plays drums. You’ve got these engineers and editors that say, “Nah, we can get everything if you just split ’em up.” We’re guys that like to feed off each other and have it be spontaneous. Those things get picked up while you’re in the studio.

We had an opportunity to work with Eddie Kramer, who likened a lot of that stuff to when he recorded Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. He said, “Look man, these guys would just get in the studio and play… Just be yourself and you’ll know. Once a song starts feeling good, you’ll have these magical moments you can’t repeat.”

What kind of tension do you feel when you try to repeat the magic and have to take it again?
That’s kind of it being magic – you can’t really repeat it. Sometimes you’ll have to choose the best take. The hardest thing to do in the studio is to repeat a great moment. That’s just something that you just can’t really repeat. When you have that kind of magic happen, you just kind of choose “that’s the one that feels better” and you just go.

How did it feel sharing the spotlight with the various band members?
For me, it’s kind of a natural thing that happens for us growing up in church. Music is a language. If you listen to James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone, there’s a lot of different things that make up this one sound. James Brown – if you take out the guitar part that sort of repeats itself, or the horn parts, it kind of takes away from the feel of the song. Everybody plays this role and you have this one, cohesive, rhythmic sound. For us growing up in church, we had that – you had the one leader, but it’s all working together.

What have you learned about the recording process that you hope to repeat in future recordings?
There’s nothing like getting all the band into a room and you just kind of play freely. That’s really the best music. That’s how all the great music that we love today was made. You kind of sat in there, you went through five or six tries and each time, you know, the bass player does a fill or the drummer does a fill and the guitar player does something and you’ve got this sort of energy going where that helps you create these magical moments and magical riffs. It’s a quicker process of recording when you do it like that. We were in the studio with Carlos Santana for two and a half days and we basically recorded nine or ten songs. That’s a whole record. We could only put two of them on here, because it would have just been a Robert Randolph/Carlos Santana sort of collaboration if we did that, which would be cool someday.

How was it bringing in a bunch of friends and guest musicians?
They were magical moments, being there with guys like Carlos Santana and seeing how he works and how he composes ideas together. It’s real magical stuff and I’m real blessed to be a part of that and see it. It’s really one of the coolest things that you could do – to see him in action.

You’ve been able to travel the world with music. If you were able to evaluate yourself then and now, how have the experiences you’ve had changed you?
Each record I’ve changed. We’ve been blessed to be in it this long and to be in the process now of making another record that’ll probably be out in the middle of summer. It’s great to keep doing it.

You learn. At the beginning of your career, you’re kind of just moving and moving. Everything’s new and you don’t really know what’s going on. People are calling you a rock star and you’re trying to do all these rock star things. You’re showing up at all these events and this and that. It kind of starts to get away from the original energy of just going into the studio and writing and recording.

It’s a good thing and a bad thing we’ve gotten to this point… We haven’t made as much music as (what) we have in us – the creativity, which will all happen now. I’m kind of glad we’ve gotten to this point, because it helps us take a step back and look at everything and see what’s been done wrong. It’s sort of like a new beginning for us, and I kind of like that. From early on, being around all these guys, we had all this buzz. buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz. We kind of got into the studio and didn’t have as much fun as we’ve had lately. It’s really a blessing to have gone down that road.

How has your church responded to your success, your performance, your music and art all these years?
I took something that was original to our church – with our church having the steel guitar in our church (services), it goes back 80 years. It was kind of like the Buena Vista Social Club. I was like the main musician guy that stepped out and went in this direction. At first there was a lot of negative kickback, but through the years, they’ve seen us spreading the love, going around the world, telling the story, doing that, being who we are. It’s really been a blessing, so they’ve been really supportive lately.

What have been some of the most mind-blowing things that people have told you?
There have been a number of things. I don’t know if I could pinpoint any one. Playing with guys like Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, Carlos Santana, Buddy Guy, Earth, Wind and Fire. Each guy has a different set of inspiration lines they would tell me. It’s all been instrumental and an extension and a growth of who I am, so it’s really been a good feeling. Each guy has given me a bunch of great knowledge through the years.

What’s next on the horizon for you? Future plans?
We’re in the process of making another record. We’ve got two concepts going right now. We may do one concept of old, ’60s covers. We’re finding all these songs that people may not know. We’ve also written a bunch of new original songs. Maybe we’ll do two of them. I don’t know.

What do you predict is the future of Christianity and the church in the near future?
What’s funny is Christianity has grown a lot and has really opened a lot of people’s eyes. That to me is one of the great things about Christianity. As the world has opened up, as the Internet has exposed — you know, because the history of Christianity in this country has been according to someone else’s preferences and their own lifestyles. Even with all these great movies coming out now about Christianity and a lot of religious movies and a lot of people now having the opportunity to travel the world and see different things, it’s really grown so people can have their own outlook on it.

For me and my church, there was a whole set of bylaws in another book that we would try to align with the Bible and, at the end of the day, the Bible is the only outline you need. That’s really been the problem. It’s sad and funny at the same time. I watched the movie “12 Years A Slave” and there’s a scene in that movie where the house slave masters would gather all the slaves together on Sunday and have a Bible study/church service. It’s funny how the guys would find things in the Bible and try to align them. They’d say things like, “If you’re not good to your master, then you need to get 100 lashes.” It’s so funny, because I’d ask my grandmother about those stories and she’d say, “Oh yeah. That was true.” That’s what her mother and grandmother would tell her. So, it’s just that Christianity has grown to where now it’s become this universal – it’s not about Baptist and Pentecostal and Methodist and this and that and all these other little things. It’s all just becoming one Christian movement.

I know a bunch of Gospel and Christian artists out there, too. I’ll try to encourage a lot of them, because a lot of them don’t think they’re as cool and as famous as they are. I’m like, “Look, man, you guys really are. At the end of the day, you guys can always have a church home to play with. Once all these rock stars get off of TV, they don’t have any outlet. They can’t even go make any money anywhere. You guys can go and play a service, have a program and have a concert in a church service all over the country and still be able to do great, so it’s really cool to see how it’s all grown.

Robert Randolph was posted on May 7, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by .