If you play pedal steel and want to cut an album, Nashville would seem like the most obvious place in the world to go. After all, pedal steel is as much associated with country music as mandolin, fiddle and lyrics that ensure you will cry in your beer. But if Béla Fleck can take the banjo into the realm of fusion, why can't the pedal steel get pushed past hardcore honky-tonk clichés?
When I first heard about Robert Randolph and the “sacred steel” phenomenon five years ago, I had to scratch my head and visualize how pedal steel playing with gospel would sound like. Was this Sunday school hymnal music with the lead instrument respectfully playing the melody line and no hot-doggin' on the frets? Was it like pre-bluegrass string band music where everything was mannered and low-key?
What I discovered when I first heard Randolph's take on steel was musically much closer to Jimi Hendrix and Sly & The Family Stone in spirit than anything you'd hear on a George Jones, John Conlee or Ferlin Husky record. Randolph might not be a public household name (yet), but to a growing number of people within the music industry and many artists and players in the know, he is a giant talent. And like many of the greatest soul and R&B artists, Randolph's artistic truth evolved out of hard-won life realizations and the redemption he found through the church.
Robert Randolph works out some “sacred steel.”
Photo: Rick Clark
“The church that I grew up in, the House of God church, and its headquarters are in Nashville, so I've been coming here for years,” says Randolph, who grew up in the urban New Jersey town of Irvington. It was in the 1930s at a Church of God in Philadelphia where the whole sacred steel sound originated. A musician named Willie Eason began playing the steel at church services, in lieu of an organ, because the cost of acquiring an organ was prohibitive for the poor urban church. It eventually became incorporated as an important and unique musical element of the Church of God services.
Randolph was introduced to me by my dear friend Jim Dickinson. His boys, the North Mississippi Allstars, would shortly hook up with Randolph and do a very cool one-off record with John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood) called The Word. With the enthusiasm of the Allstars, Medeski and a handful of other artists, Randolph quickly became the darling of those who appreciated his amazing facility and creativity on the instrument and really imbue it with soul. In the past five years, Randolph has appeared on recordings with Fountains of Wayne, Rob Thomas, Blind Boys of Alabama, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Ringo Starr, Sawyer Brown and others. Soon, Robert Randolph & The Family Band became staples of the jam band touring scene and won over fans of such bands as Dave Matthews, Phish and the Allstars. There are also two fine albums by Robert Randolph & The Family Band: Live At the Wetlands and Unclassified, both worth seeking out.
During the past couple of years, Randolph has been working on what will soon be two new albums; one will be a collection of old gospel songs and some hits that have been popularized by other artists, done with Randolph's own spin. The other comprises Randolph originals or co-writes, with the exception of a version of “Jesus Is Just Alright,” which was originally recorded by The Byrds. At this time, neither album is titled.
When I got the call to head over to see Randolph, he was wrapping up work on the second album at Ground Star Studios, a classic old-school facility (rich with deeply hued wood throughout) located at 12 Music Circle South, where the overdubs and mixes for this leg of the Nashville sessions took place. The tracking happened next door at Sound Stage.
Randolph and producer/songwriter Pete Kipley were leaning over the console, heads bobbing, while this slamming Hendrix/Band of Gypsies — style track they co-wrote called “Thrill of It” blasted out of the monitors. It's a big, rambunctious sound that exudes real band chemistry. Listening to this, it's hard to imagine any fan of heavy blues and funk-influenced rock not loving this.
“This is some of the best work I've ever done,” enthuses Kipley. “I'm so proud of this band, and I really hope they get huge.” Kipley uses Pro Tools|HD3 and expresses a lot of enthusiasm for the Vintech Audio X73i Class-A mic pre's/EQ and the X81 Class-A mic pre/EQ. “We initially rented an unbelievable 1073 sidecar for this project, but when we did a comparison, the Vintech stuff smoked it,” says Kipley, who favors the X73i for harder rock recordings. Kipley is also a fan of the Distressors. “We are using copious amounts of compression on this record. This is a break-out album for Robert and we want it to freaking rock in the iPod and in the car,” adds Kipley.
In addition to the track I heard, there are 35 new songs that Randolph and a crew of songwriter/producers created during the past couple of years. It is obvious that a lot of heart and soul have gone into this undertaking, and Randolph has made sure this was the best representation of his artistic intent: a synthesis of funk, soul and hard rock.
“The vision for this record was a Hendrix meets Robert Randolph & The Family Band meets Sly & the Family Stone meets Stevie Wonder sound, with elements of Led Zeppelin in there, too,” says Randolph. “There are a lot of fans who associate Robert Randolph & The Family band with just the jam scene or blues scene, and we want to stretch out more. We want to give a lot of alternative fans and a lot of rock fans who could really be into this project more about who we are and what we do.”
In addition to “Thrill of It,” Kipley also produced two other tracks for the project — “Stronger” and “Jesus Is Just Alright,” the latter partially recorded at Olympic Studios in London and featuring a guest appearance by Randolph fan Eric Clapton. But with the exception of some recording in New York with producer/songwriter Mark Batson, Randolph also tracked the bulk of this album in Nashville. “For me, Nashville is a great place to record,” enthuses Randolph. “We love working here at Ground Star and Soundstage. The vibe in both places is great, and we get great sounds here.”
At Ground Star Studio, Robert Randolph, front and center, with producer/songwriter Pete Kipley (right) and engineer Mike O’Connor
Photo: Rick Clark
In addition to Kipley, Randolph's album employs several other fine producer/songwriters, including Tommy Sims and the team of Andrew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders. “I've worked with so many different people on this album and each of these producers has really been great,” remarks Randolph. “Tom Whalley, the head of Warner Bros., has also been very helpful in this process of recordmaking, and the whole staff of Warner Bros. has been great.”
Speaking more generally about the songs, Randolph notes, “There are no sad moments in this record and there isn't anything political. This is something that is going to make you feel good from top to bottom, which is what Robert Randolph & The Family Band are about. This has been a long journey, and we are now in the final stages and it is been a ride. There are a lot of people who have offered great ideas and really want to see us make our own kind of world in this business, and that is a great thing.”
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