Robert Randolph – Heart of steel
As for lyrics, the approach on Unclassified seems to be the simpler, the better. Each of the album’s seven vocal numbers is built around a basic message addressed, if not to God specifically, then to a special someone who has pulled the song’s protagonist out of the dark and kept them safe, warm, spiritually nourished. The verses move into anthemic choruses that are repeated time and again as the music builds, the solos intensify, and the songs break out into raucous celebrations.
In short, it’s roof-raisin’ music.
All of this is a long way from where Randolph was just a couple of years ago. He worked as a paralegal during the week and on Sundays played steel guitar in the House of God Pentecostal Church in Orange, New Jersey, winding his improvised licks around the minister’s entreaties to the congregation.
Before he picked up the steel guitar and came back to the church in a serious way, Randolph did his time on the street corner, skipping school, listening to gangsta rap and getting in his share of trouble.
“Jersey is a rough place to begin with,” he says. “The area I grew up in is urban and kinda rough — a lot of crime and crookedness going on. A lot of the frustrations that go on in life, I grew up with. Friends getting killed, you know? What happened to me when I became a teenager, music became that kind of escape for me. A way out.”
Randolph says he always knew the way out was by going to church. “But when you’re young, you need something to keep you occupied. As things go on, with people going to jail and getting killed, I was in the house playing music. In some ways, it’s amazing that I’m still alive today. I was really a part of all those things my friends did. But music was just that thing that got me out of it.”
His mother was a minister and his father a deacon in the House of God, and he took an interest in music early, playing drums in the church youth choir. But he also grew up listening to sacred steel greats such as Calvin Cooke, Maurice “Ted” Beard, and the Campbell Brothers.
Beard, in fact, became Randolph’s step-grandfather after his parents divorced and his father married Beard’s daughter. And it was Chuck Campbell who bought him his first guitar, a small lap steel that cost $100, as a Christmas gift.
Sacred steel itself dates back to the late 1930s, when Philadelphians Troman and Willie Eason learned how to play lap steel guitar from a Hawaiian acquaintance and then brought their instruments into the House of God. The sect itself cites Psalm 150:4 (“Praise him with stringed instruments”) and Psalm 149:3 (“Let them praise his name in the dance”) as the scriptural justification for their use of musical instruments and dance in their services. Their distinct approach to the instrument developed all but unnoted beyond church walls until Florida folklorist Robert Stone stumbled upon the music in 1992.
Nearly all of the elder players who came across Randolph gave him advice, not just about music, but about life.
“They taught me how to play, but they also taught me how to be humble,” he says. “How to always have an open mind about learning and criticism and stuff like that.”
Randolph credits Beard as a special source of inspiration. “I spent a summer with him and he taught me a lot of things. I spent a long time with him and every day I’d practice, play, and learn some songs — good gospel songs, old traditionals. It was great.”
But the real turning point for Randolph was in 1998, when a friend loaned him a cassette tape filled with songs by Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“Once I heard him, that just did it for me,” Randolph says. “The way he approached the music with his soul — that’s one thing I tell to a lot of guitar players, or people who sing or play anything. I’m like, ‘The soul is what counts, not how much you can play, how many notes, how many scales or chords, you know?’ It’s like your soul is connected to somebody else’s soul. People feel that. That’s what Stevie Ray did.”
Word of Randolph’s talents spread, and he contributed a cut to the 1999 anthology Sacred Steel — Live! (Arhoolie) which featured Cooke, Beard, the Campbells, and Willie Eason, among others. He and his cousin Marcus also cut a demo with producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel that found its way into the hands of blues-rock jam band the North Mississippi Allstars.