Music News & Reviews

Guitar great revisits his roots

Robert Randolph, center, says he has come full circle with his latest album, We Walk This Road. He started out playing pedal steel guitar in church but made his name with his rock grooves.
Robert Randolph, center, says he has come full circle with his latest album, We Walk This Road. He started out playing pedal steel guitar in church but made his name with his rock grooves.

It has been nearly a decade since Robert Randolph took the pedal steel guitar out of the House of God Church, where he received most of his spiritual as well as musical education, and onto concert stages with Eric Clapton, The Dave Matthews Band, The North Mississippi Allstars and other decidedly secular acts.

With that transformation came immediate crossover stardom, a contract with Warner Bros. Records and placement on Rolling Stone magazine's list of "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time."

But one has to wonder whether the connection to the "sacred steel" music of Randolph's youth — an electrifying spiritual sound pioneered on the pedal steel — was lost in the transformation to the pop, rock and jam band worlds. Sure, Randolph's recordings — and, especially, the live shows, backed by his Family Band — were galvanizing, intensely energetic affairs. But their proudly rockish sound often seemed to overwhelm the roots of a young artist (who was still in his teens when the pop universe discovered him) so extensively versed in spiritual music.

Anyone hoping that Randolph would shift the balance of power in his music back to his churchy heritage need only listen to We Walk This Road, a new recording that efficiently balances gospel and spiritual music tradition with grooves that truly span the ages.

"The record kind of brings me full circle," said Randolph, one of the featured acts at next weekend's Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. "The music we set out to do, the whole vibe surrounding it, involves people. So many audiences want to be uplifted on a sort of mainstream level without a record that purposely tries to be mainstream. We're making music that simply connects on a spiritual level with the larger walks of life."

The first step in connecting the cultural, stylistic and historical dots within the music on We Walk This Road was to understand the spiritualism existing in music created by artists who weren't exclusively, as they say, church folk.

That meant examining early folk and blues music, and the links that connected it to spiritual inspirations of secular artists from today. In doing so, We Walk This Road examines songs ranging from those of bluesman Blind Willie Johnson to comparatively modern songsmiths such as Bob Dylan, Prince and Peter Case.

Probably the most inventive retooling of the album's contemporary fare is found on Randolph's version of John Lennon's I Don't Want to be a Soldier Mama, a terse anti-war meditation first cut for the landmark 1971 album Imagine. Spiritualism, in this instance, becomes an earthy, survivalist quest.

To help pilot the journey, Randolph recruited a producer who has made a career out of bringing roots music inspirations to a contemporary spotlight: T Bone Burnett.

"I hadn't really been connected to a lot of the early stuff out there by artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James and Willie Dixon," Randolph said. "T Bone really helped light a fire under a lot of that stuff for me. Going back to this whole library of original American roots music was really a treat.

"This is what guys like Dylan listened to long ago. This is the stuff (Led) Zeppelin and (Jimi) Hendrix listened to when they were coming up. They allowed this music to become their own."

Two direct instances on We Walk This Road that illustrate such roots music excavation place brief snippets of the blueprint songs (segues, as they are termed in the album notes) alongside the reworked versions Burnett and Randolph fashioned.

For example, roughly 30 wiry seconds of Johnson's own version of If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down preface the easy country blues whine and merry percussive strut of a reading that matches Randolph's pedal steel with the vocals and slide guitar of Ben Harper.

Later, verses of Them Bones recorded nearly 80 years ago by the gospel ensemble Mitchell's Christian Singers lead into a modern variation titled Dry Bones that employs an ultra funky groove along with guitar colors by Randolph and Burnett.

"The deeper we got into this record, the more I talked with the engineers that always work with T Bone," Randolph said. "They would say, 'Man, you don't even know. T Bone has been wanting to record these kinds of songs with a young artist for so long. But most of the young artists have been like, 'No, I don't think this music is too cool.' So I think T Bone really felt in his heart that people needed to hear these songs.

"There's no trend going on with this music. The only trend is that people should be uplifting one another."