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Published: 2010/10/06
by Randy Ray

Robert Randolph and The Full Trilogy

Robert Randolph is currently on the road supporting his recent release We Walk This Road, before another high marquee gig as a member of the Experience Hendrix Tour, which the pedal steel guitarist joins in Toronto on October 28. His new album, produced by the ubiquitous and formidable T-Bone Burnett, is a wonderful distillation of over one hundred years of American roots music. Indeed, We Walk This Road is also a celebration of African-American songs, and the work is significant because it marks the first time Randolph, a gospel-based performer, raised in the traditions of the House of God Church, had been exposed to those ancient pearls from the American soundscape.

Jambands.com sat down with Randolph on a tour off-day, and spoke with him about his continuing musical education, whether it is under the guidance of Burnett, or via collaborations with the likes of Leon Russell or Robbie Robertson. The musician quipped that playing with these bastions of historical importance can be a “contagious disease,” but so is the man’s own music, which has always sounded like more of a celebration of the human spirit, rather than an ode to the depressed shortcomings of a society that doesn’t care. Randolph takes note, delivers the goods, and hopes that we enjoy the results. After all, in the musician’s own words, “that’s what I’m here to do.”

Let’s begin with a description of the significance of the Slide Brothers [who also will be touring with Randolph on the Experience Hendrix Tour].

The Slide Brothers are Sacred Steel. These are guys that I grew up with in my church who are like my Muddy Waters and B.B. King. I grew up watching them in church, wanting to play like them. So, now, I have the opportunity to take those guys out with me and travel with me, and really have the rest of the world know who these guys are and who my major influences were growing up.

Your unique upbringing shaped who you are today.

I guess growing up in church, and being a part of the church thing, and also growing up in an inner city here in New Jersey, a rough county, a rough town, and all that, I guess you see the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Being able to have this gift from God to be able to play music, and write songs, or to perform, I could only help but to go out there and to share joy, give people some sense that when things go wrong, there are uplifting songs and music and dancing—just to really uplift people. That’s who I am. That’s what I’m here to do. (laughs)

When you were exploring older records to help inspire the songs for We Walk This Road, did it open up some new paths, some new music that you were not familiar with in the past? How much was producer T-Bone Burnett a part of that process?

T-Bone was a big part of the influence of making this record going forward. Even going forward, to be able to sit down with a guy like T-Bone…a guy like T-Bone doesn’t really understand, he doesn’t really care about radio songs. That to him is like “What does that mean? If a song is good enough, it should be played on the radio. It’s not…you can’t be sitting here and writing a radio song for a hit, or whatever that means.” (laughs)

He told me, “You have to be able to make great music for the fans and the listeners and have people catch on because 30 years from now, you all want to be doing this, and you want to be writing and singing songs in 30 years when you’re Clapton’s age and all that.” (laughs) “That’s what a hit is. A hit is not like getting on the radio today. It’s about when you are 50, and you are able to tour arenas and look back and sing songs that we wrote 30 years ago, and have a couple generations of fans singing these songs.”

To be able to sit and make [ We Walk This Road ] with him, and learn about so much of this great music that has been recorded in the last hundred years that I hadn’t heard of like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Blind Willie Johnson, and a lot of these old gospel field recordings and stuff that we used as inspiration was a great thing to me.

The snippets of historical songs are featured as segues, and serve as preludes to your cover versions and new material written by yourself, Burnett, Tonio K., and Peter Case, which are rooted in the past with an eye for the present.

Yeah. That’s what we sort of went for, even when you’re talking about the lyrical content in songs like “If I Had My Way” and “Dry Bones.” You have those old segues there, but we sort of re-wrote them and changed them, so that people of today would be able to relate to a story that is about something going on in their life, or something they’ve seen, or whatever, and to give them something, a goal to shoot for. It was really that sense of the thing that we wanted to do, to remind people where we got it from, and also to educate young artists and musicians about that stuff. Now, people are like, “Man, let me go dive into that stuff. Let me see what I can do.” That’s all T-Bone really wanted to do. He said, “Look, I want to work with you on this project, and then, when you’re down the road and working with other people, and doing some other stuff, you can remember this moment where we sort of looked back at this stuff, and how it helped you create a whole new realm of music going forward.”

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