Puremusic interview with Robert Randolph

So many careers, even successful ones, read as predictably as a bloodless story in a hometown newspaper. The hairbrush microphone, the talent show, the clubs, the deal, the do or die. But the unlikely rise of Robert Randolph and The Family Band is more the stuff of legend.

Allegedly because a proper organ was too expensive at the time, William Eason introduced the pedal steel guitar into the choir accompaniment in a New Jersey parish of the House of God Church in the 1930s. As a worship instrument that could swell organ-like and beyond under the lifted voices, and cry and wail, soar and sting, the steel was a mighty testifier that caught on in a number of other chapters of the House of God, and became a signature instrument of that denomination.

A tradition developed called The Sacred Steel and a small group of virtuosos arose in the decades to follow, among them Calvin Cooke, Ted Beard, and the Campbell Brothers, Chuck and Darick. It spread to various parts of the country, and there have been several Sacred Steel Conventions recorded by Arhoolie Records, who now have no less than nine releases of Sacred Steel in their esteemed catalog. (God Bless Chris Strachwitz and his Arhoolie Records, they've been preserving and popularizing the music of various cultures for four decades. Their Grammy winning 40th Anniversary Box Set can be purchased here.)

But the emergent prodigy Robert Randolph was the real Einstein of the pack, and when he heard the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the late 90s, it really opened up his mind and his approach. He began to venture into the secular world of clubs with his funky soulful music, a black man seated at an instrument associated almost exclusively with Country and Western music.

He gathered around him a couple of cousins from the church on bass and drums, and eventually a white B-3 player. A few of them made a record at Roscoe Ambel's Brooklyn studio, and somehow that made its way into the hands of the North Mississippi Allstars, who arranged for Robert and Co. to open their imminent Bowery Ballroom show. That was the first big break, because organist par excellence John Medeski (of the notorious jazz jamband Medeski, Martin and Wood) saw that gig, and it lead to the recording of all those forces on a Gospel project called The Word. Robert's name was now being spoken in many circles, and his reputation in the music-rabid and very communicative jam band world spread quickly.

Along the way, the labels caught on and swarmed in that me-too way they do, and eventually Robert inked a deal with Warners, with whom he seems very happy. Hell, have you seen the man all over VH-1? Now they're on national tour with great acts, and their following grows.

The new CD, Unclassified, is a masterful, muscular, and definitely secular major-label debut. (Check out the clips on the Listen page.) This amazing cat might make the pedal steel guitar the next big thing, which would be fine with me. Robert Randolph is making waves, let's see how high they get.   continue to interview