Robert Randolph Returns To Gospel Roots On 'Brighter Days,' Talks Stevie Wonder's Genius, Basketball & More
There's no one quite like Robert Randolph. His signature pedal steel guitar style weaves blues, soul, rock and gospel together in an electrifying concoction that baffles and inspires even his heroes. Randolph and his aptly named Family Band have built a strong following on a strong catalog on their way to five GRAMMY nominations, the most recent for Best Contemporary Blues Album for 2017's Got Soul.
But Randolph and family have come full circle, and their follow-up album to Got Soul arrives with familiar gospel flair. Brighter Days, which dropped Aug. 23, delivers the spirit of hope and salvation you'd expect from Sunday service, pumped through Randolph's supercharged sound and rejuvenating inspirational message that can only be described as divine.
We spent some time with Randolph recently to hear about making Brighter Days with Dave Cobb, his eternal love of Stevie Wonder, phone calls from Eric Clapton, some surprising tour moments, his deadly three-point jump shot and more.
So, you're returning to your gospel roots on Brighter Days. What moved you and the family band in that direction after Got Soul?
It's really just accepting the time that we're in, and accepting who I am. I came up through the church, and having the blues and gospel all kind of meet and mix. Our church, Pentecostal music was always, is it blues, is it gospel? What is this? People jumping around and shouting, they having a great time.
And so looking at all of the current events that are going on today in the world, we just decided to really go in the studio and record something that would be inspirational. Especially for me, knowing better and growing up in church, and always being one of the guys that's always there to inspire somebody, and bring joy without being really preachy or down and out. You just always want to pick people up, you know? So, in making this record with the great producer, Dave Cobb, we just decided to do the songs, like "Baptize Me" and "Have Mercy," "Cut Em Loose," and "Don't Fight It." It's just so many great inspirational pick-me-up songs that will make you want to dance, smile, cry, hug somebody.
Why was Dave Cobb the right choice for this project for you?
He, too, grew up in a Pentecostal church in the South, in Georgia, and we had these conversations early on about me and my roots, and how, like I said, crosses over from blues and gospel and not only that, just having somebody that you could work with, that understands… He understands the roots of blues and gospel, and actually how to get the rawness of the gospel church-y feel.
The first conversation we had, when I reached out to him about producing this record, he immediately sent me these clips of these funky old gospel bluesy songs, from down in Louisiana, or Alabama, Mississippi somewhere. And he was like, "You see? You hit a choir sound, but you get a funky bass. And guitar, and it's got this rawness. We're going to do that. We're going to add this choir, we're going to bring in all these different sounds, but to have it sound big and inspirational." So that was the key in having him produce the record. And, such a great guy to talk about the history of music, the roots of it all... Keep going back to the roots, so that's what it is.
There's an optimistic theme to the album, and to the single "Baptise Me." Can you talk a little bit about that song, and do you think that this theme of love and optimism is especially crucial with what is going on in the world today?
Considering at the time that we're in now, where you got all these people crawling from underneath the rocks, and everybody's sort of surprised. I'm not really surprised, these people are there. You know, sometime we talk about history, we talk about the '60s, but it's not that long ago. We all got grandparents and parents that are still alive, most of us, right? And that's been true, that stuff. So, in some ways, I'm the kind of person to where I'm almost… I'm happy to see who the nasty, ugly people are so we can get more inspiration. Let's see who these enemies are. Whoever they are, right? Because we got work to do.
I think right now we're going to the next phase of, "How can we do this?"… Everybody's sort of struggling looking for answers, and it's up to all of us together, to come together for a new cause of togetherness, and love, and hope, and joy and, "How do we learn to accept everybody's culture and religion, and where you're from, and all of these different things?"
So, it was important for us to write these songs. Like the song "Baptise Me," you listen to it, you get caught up in the funkiness of it. I'm not tooting my horn, but it's kind of funky and dirty. See the term baptize is really kind of being dipped in the water. If you come from the church, or wherever you get baptized, you get dipped in the world and all of a sudden, you [think], "I supposed to be a new person." So, that's what we're all looking for, the new. It's for everybody who look deep inside and find a new person, like you would do at a New Year's resolution. "I'm not going to eat donuts anymore. I'm going to go to the gym." Right? All of these different things. So, that's kind of what that song is about.
Very cool. Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival is coming up. What does being on such an incredible bill mean to you?
Man, I'm so happy to be a part of the Eric Clapton's Crossroads festival. This would be the third or fourth one that we done. It's just so great to be a part of that. Eclectic class of guitar players, and musicians, and artists, and to actually get the call from Eric Clapton himself, inviting us again. It's just important for me, to... When you look at these guys, at 70 years old, Buddy Guy, and Eric Clapton, and Joe Walsh, and all of these great iconic guitar players, Peter Frampton.
And to follow in those footsteps, and not only to just watch them, but to be able to talk to them. Find out, first of all, how to stay alive that long. because there's so much partying you can do, but also how do you get better at guitar playing, and songwriting, singing, playing... kind of recreating a new Robert Randolph.
But, it's also the pressure of all these guitar players. It's kind of [competitive] like this... the NBA finals right? Now, everybody's like, "all right, I'm gonna kick your booty. Check out my new guitar tone, check out my new pedals, check out this, check out that." But it's all done in love, and it's such a great weekend, and I can't wait for it. It's going to be a great time.
You mentioned basketball. Are you a sports fan?
I'm a big sports fan. Yeah. First thing, ESPN is on. First thing I do, wake up in the morning, [put on] ESPN, see what's going down.
Did you ever play, or do you play now?
When I grew up, I was a basketball player in high school. I was the man, but you know, guitar.
Same here. What position?
I was a shooting guard. I had a deadly three. More deadly than Stephen Curry, by the way.
Ray allen https://t.co/XXCI3OHVBb
— Robert Randolph (@rrtfb) August 14, 2019
All right, well we got you on tape on that one.
Get me on tape. All of my prayers growing up. Although, I got kicked off the high school team, at the beginning of the senior year, because I was just too A.D.D., which led me to the guitar, to a pedal steel guitar. Because you got to have A.D.D. to be able to play that thing. It's two hands, two feet, two pedals, two knees… 10 fingers.
Like a one-man band.
Yeah. And then you got to try to sing in the same key, and move around, and stay in tune.
And no frets.
And no frets. So, one little half, a little millimeter off, and it's kind of like, "Oh, what's going here?"
Sounds athletic in its own way, too.
I also want to call you out on a tweet that I loved about Stevie Wonder being the greatest musical artist of all time. I don't think you're going to get many arguments on that, but with what you just described, and what you do, specifically with pedal steel, what did you learn from him? What did he teach you as a musician?
Man! So, I tweeted out, "Stevie Wonder is the greatest music artists of all time." This guy has... First of all, he could sing over any group of chords and make it the coolest thing ever. And his voice has changed the history of singing, his keyboard playing has changed the history of keyboard sounds, and playing. His musical styles... he's covered everything. "Boogie On Reggae Woman," "Master Blaster," "Talking Book"... this, that. You see, I don't know if you follow me on Twitter, but everybody started chiming in, and we started like "All I Do. This, that song. That's all, Superstition..." All of that. It's just so many. Even when you go back and you listen to "Part-time Lover." We all... that was almost like Beverly Hills Cop or something. And everybody... A lot of people didn't really like the song, because it's got that... But when you listen to it now, it's like, "Man, what is wrong with this guy, man?"
Stevie wonder is the greatest music artist of ALL TIME!!!!!!!!! So many hits so many styles,can sing and play over any chords, reinvents the rule book so many times.
— Robert Randolph (@rrtfb) August 4, 2019
So, he just re-invented, over and over again, new rules of music. So... and he's been doing it so long, he has so many great songs. And by the way, it is the best live show you could ever go see, because the whole crowd knows all of the songs. I don't care what song it is, everybody's singing nonstop. And you'll notice, you'll say, "Wait a second. I love that song!" Right? "I forgot about that one!" The whole time, for two and a half hours.
And he's been an inspiration to all of us. And once again, there is no... Stevie Wonder doesn't fit into any genre. "What is this, R&B? Is it rock and roll? Is it blues...?" No, it's Stevie Wonder, that's what it is, right? You and I... so many songs, it's like... it's a rollercoaster, man.
Yeah, and he'd be a genius if he'd just written one of them.
Exactly. If he just did "Happy Birthday," I mean, who can else can do "Happy Birthday" and it'd be like "Whoa," right?
You know, you mentioned something there about pushing the instrument forward, You've pushed pedal steel to a new place where nobody has. But specific to your instrument, what are you interested in, and working on, and studying, and expanding as a player these days?
So, my pedal steel guitar, it's trying to imitate guys like Stevie Wonder vocally, like [singing], which is the hardest thing to do. So, that's always a challenge, is to really try to take this instrument that was known first as a Hawaiian instrument, which then went to country music twinging and twanging and swinging, and our church music history created this whole other sound of it. It's almost like a Bo Diddley meets Mahalia Jackson singing, and Stevie Wonder, and all that. So, it's all of that.
And I tried to play it like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix would play their guitars. So, that to me is always a challenge, it still is. I'm still growing and learning every day, because that's what a pedal steel can do to you, it'll drive you nuts. And it's all these different chord combinations, and you forget them today, and you'll forget them tomorrow, so you kind of got to keep refreshing your brain, you know?
You've got some dates coming up the rest of the summer, in the fall. Are you going to be playing a lot of the new material? What can fans expect from the next run of shows?
Man, the next run of shows... First of all, the last month of shows has been great, because we've been planning these new songs, and people just been really digging them. Everybody's singing. Just a few days ago, we performing "Baptise Me," and the stage, it was actually on this float on the lake. So there was some water. So as we're playing "Baptise Me," people jumping in the water, laying in the water. It's like, well, "what's going on here, man?" Then they splashing water, splashing it on people... "Get baptised!" and it turned into this 15 minute jam.
But, between that, "Don't Fight It," and "Cut Em Loose," and all these new songs from off this great record, you could see the sense of joy that kind of reminds me of the beginning of my career, how we kind of introduce all these sort of inspirational, joyful, spiritual tones. But it was also rocking, and you dancing, and you feel good, and that to me is what Robert Randolph and the Family Band is all about, bringing joy to everybody's hearts and minds and souls, and making people smile.