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Robert Randolph Lifts Spirits With Soul

Photo by Dean Budnick

When Robert Randolph & the Family Band released their 2003 studio debut, it couldn’t have been titled more appropriately. Unclassified brought the pedal steel player to a wide audience that grew with choice spots for the band’s music including promos for the NBA.

Fourteen years later, Randolph has done it again. His fifth studio effort, Got Soul, perfectly references his church background as a Sacred Steel musician as well as his ability to seamlessly bring together soul, blues, funk, gospel and rock.

On a more basic level, the name of the new album draws from the title track and the song, “She Got Soul.” Talking about that element of musician’s spirit, Randolph said, “People like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, Elvis and the Stones, they were all in tune with their soul. When you’re digging deep in your soul, you can always find originality. People got soul everywhere.”

Growing up in Orange, New Jersey Randolph learned his exceptional skills on pedal steel at House of God Church. By 2000 he was ready to branch out into the secular world and wowed audiences as well as musicians in the New York area. Soon, he was opening for North Mississippi Allstars and was invited to join members of NMAS and John Medeski as the gospel instrumental jam act, The Word.

Randolph followed that with seven releases – two live, five studio – countless live dates with the Family Band and shared stages and recording appearances with Eric Clapton, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Dave Matthews Band, Santana, Ringo Starr and Buddy Guy among others.

Got Soul his first album in four years should earn him as much praise for his songs as he has long earned for his playing. The record also features guest vocalists Anthony Hamilton (“She Got Soul”), Darius Rucker (“Love Do What It Do”) and Snarky Puppy’s Cory Henry on a cover of the Sam & Dave classic “I Thank You.”

As Randolph explains during our conversation, his music aims to inspire people with positive sounds and lift their spirits. Got Soul moves in that direction.

JGP: Your new album’s on Sony Masterworks. I hear that name and think of classical music, but when I looked at the roster, there’s much more to it than that. Still, why did you sign to this particular label?

RR: There’s a guy there named Chuck Mitchell, who took over the label. Sony Masterworks has now become one of these true rock, bluesy Americana labels. They let the artist have their own creative way with the label as well. It’s kind of one shared vision of solid music. Everybody there is on the same page. We just clicked right away. It really happened. It was a great time hanging with those guys.

JPG: At first when I noticed this is your first album in four years, I thought “Wow! That’s a long time. Usually bands don’t have such a long break,” but a release every three to four years is normal for you.

RR: Well, you know it’s funny, man. What’s weird is all three of my last records all of the labels I was on had basically either fired the president or fired 90% of the staff or something right after I put the records out. (Laughs) It happened when I was at Warner Bros. It happened with the Colorblind record. They got rid of a bunch of staff. Then, we had to wait a long time. Then, the T-Bone Burnett record, We Walk This Road ,” that we put out. Right that week that record came out the head of the label got let go. The last record which we did [ Lickety Split ] , which was on Blue Note, the same thing sort of happened. They’re part of the Capitol Music Group but it changed directions with what they wanted to do a month after the record came out, too.

I had let Sony know. They were like, “Well, you know the last couple of records didn’t sell well.” I was like, “Yo, they fired the staff.” It wasn’t just me. It was a bunch of other artists. It happened to Warren Haynes. Warren Haynes was at Blue Note, too. When I was at Warner Brothers, My Chemical Romance and a bunch of other bands, it happened to everybody there.

Little ol’ me got caught in that stage three times. Sony was just a great group of people to talk to. We all shared the vision of keep putting out music and keep putting out content because through all these years, there definitely hadn’t been enough music and enough content. So, we really got the ball rolling with those guys.

JPG: But you still got exposure. I remember the NBA used one of your songs for promos. “Going in the Right Direction?”

RR: Well, sports people like to use a bunch of upbeat music, and I’m a sports guy. I guess what they do, more so now than ever, they’re trying to look for positive artists and positive message and everything else. I’m always going to fit in that category. I’m always at sporting events anyway — hockey, baseball, basketball, football and so forth. A lot of those people are music fans.

JPG: On a side note, I might be afraid to ask this, but your favorite hockey team is…

RR: (laughs) Rangers

JPG: Yes. Robert I love you (laughs). Longtime Rangers fan here.

RR: I just got into hockey back in 2004. I tell everybody, first of all, a hockey playoff game is the most stressful freakin’ event you can find. Whether you’re there or whether you’re watching it on TV, it is nerve-wracking. My God ! Even more so than a baseball pitch because baseball is like the guy’s on base…hockey is like if the puck goes in the net, that’s it. (laughs) And it all happens so fast.

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