Robert Randolph Ushers In Steel-Guitar Soul With 'Lickety Split' As a kid, Randolph always saw himself as a steel-guitar rock star. Now, the 33-year-old frontman has released a soulful new album with a twist on gospel music.

Robert Randolph Ushers In Steel-Guitar Soul With 'Lickety Split'

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Robert Randolph is the musical force behind this pedal steel guitar you're hearing, and he's frontman for the band Robert Randolph and the Family Band. The 33-year-old's Grammy-nominated sound has its roots in the House of God Church in Orange, New Jersey where he played the instrument in the Sacred Steel tradition. That's a gospel musical style popular in African-American Pentecostal churches that uses a steel guitar in place of an organ.

Randolph's soul gospel and R&B twist on this style landed him Grammy nominations and also a tour with Eric Clapton. He has a new album out, his first in three years, it's called "Lickety Split." And Robert Randolph, welcome to the program. Thanks for coming on.

ROBERT RANDOLPH: What's up? How you feeling?

GREENE: I'm feeling good, thank you. Can you tell me about Sacred Steel? What is the sound and tradition we're talking about?

RANDOLPH: Well, you're talking about a sound that starts with the pedal steel and the lap steel. It's been going on since my grandmother was born. And the history behind the story is the church couldn't afford organs in the early '20s, so guys bought these cheap lap steels for 30, 40, 50 dollars and started this rhythmic sound, while trying to mimic the human voice after the old deacons and old elders would finish singing.

And throughout the last 90 or, shoo, we're almost approaching a hundred years now, you know, there's been guys that I've grown up watching play who were like my Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, and Albert King and Jimi Hendrix. And growing up as a kid in the church, you know, you always wanted to be the pedal-steel guy 'cause, you know, you were, the main rock star.


GREENE: Can you remind me what the pedal-steel looks like? Paint me a picture here.

RANDOLPH: Well, it sits like a - you know, it's so funny. When I open shows for like Clapton or Dave Matthews or somebody, people think I'm a DJ.


RANDOLPH: So it sits on four legs. It has pedals and knee levers that you sit down on a chair. And you play with both hands, both knees, and both feet to create this beautiful sound. Most people are probably familiar with it where, you know, a lot of guys played it in country music. But for us, we play it as a sort of weeping, rhythmic, you know, soulful.


ROBERT RANDOLPH & THE FAMILY BAND: (Singing) Hey, welcome back my brother. Welcome back from the war...

GREENE: What do people back in your church, in Orange, New Jersey think about your music; that you've taken a music, you know, from the tradition of the church and given it, you know, a secular sound?

RANDOLPH: You know, they love it. You know, they criticize you more than anything else, but they love it. You know, they go like, oh, you might be losing it a little bit. I got this old tape of you when you was at church. You used to play a four-hour church service.

That's why when we first started playing, you know, we would wear crowds out. Man, it be like jeez, man, you guys not going to take a set break? I'm like, no, this is the third hour, man, we're used to playing 30-minute songs that turns into another 20-minute jam. You know, so it's really cool.

GREENE: You know, I have read about there being a stigma, sometimes, from musicians who take this church tradition and kind of take it to another place. How do you deal with that?

RANDOLPH: You know, that's just what we do as musicians. You know, what I mean? All right, for example like this, the guys before me were not allowed to go out and play outside the church whatsoever. And all of these great guys that I grew up watching play, these were - I mean some of these guys would have been major music stars. I mean this story that I'm telling would have already been told 40 years ago.

GREENE: So these churches would not let some people, you know, leave the church and take the music outside.

RANDOLPH: No, 'cause we come from a real strict church organization, where not only you can't go outside the church and play at clubs and so-and-so, and so-and-so, you could couldn't even go outside our church and play. Because they would say that our church was the best church that God has created, and you only need to be here playing. You know?

I've sort of helped my own church organization kind of get out of a jaded mind frame that they've been in.

GREENE: Well, I want to ask you about the new album. You co-wrote nine of the 12 songs on it. And the one I wanted to play, "Born Again," let's give a listen.


ROBERT RANDOLPH & THE FAMILY BAND: (Singing) There's been a change in the light and now my soul is satisfied that with your love, yeah, I can't deny I feel born again...

GREENE: I mean there are - certainly seem to be strong religious connotations here. But you've actually said this is not a gospel song. What is it about?

RANDOLPH: Well, I mean don't forget that the term gospel means the good word. And it wasn't meant to be a gospel song. It was actually meant to be this sort of love story, which is all the good news, anyway. 'Cause, you know, after you've been on a thousand dates and you finally meet the right person, you know, you feel born again. And you just feel all excited. And you want to have a family. You want to have kids. You know, you start to get all syrupy and corny now.


ROBERT RANDOLPH & THE FAMILY BAND: (Singing) With your love, I can't deny, hey, I feel born again. Hey...

RANDOLPH: It's just so funny that a lot of the stuff that I do, it just comes out to sounding spiritual. And at the end of the day, we, you know, we added the extra voices which sort of sounds like a choir on there. And the story is just this great story of finding the right person that allows you to be or feel spiritual.

GREENE: This album, Robert Randolph, "Lickety Split," I mean a lot of changes for you: a new record label, new producer; a new instrument as well, I think - tell me about that.

RANDOLPH: Well, I got a new stand-up pedal steel which makes me look kind of more sexy, eh?




RANDOLPH: It's a thing, you know, they told me wasn't looking sexy enough, you know? 'Cause I was sitting down playing. So I invented the Robert Randolph model pedal-steel guitar stands up, and I could play and I could move around. And I could show off my - not yet, but I'll have abs in another month or so.


RANDOLPH: A six-pack.

GREENE: You're working on it.



ROBERT RANDOLPH & THE FAMILY BAND: (Singing) Let me tell you a thing or two about living in a broken world. Lickety split. Everybody is all shook-up, just in case you haven't heard...

GREENE: When you're off on the road performing songs like this, I mean do you still ever imagine yourself back there, you know, in front of that congregation as a kid?

RANDOLPH: Of course, you know, because now as I look at it, the congregation is where we're playing. And you see people's faces and the joy come out of these people being on the road, you know, and traveling around the world. I mean this is our church, now that we get to travel around and have our church caravan.

GREENE: Well, keep enjoying that caravan. Robert Randolph of Robert Randolph & The Family Band, thanks so much for joining us and good luck with the new album.

RANDOLPH: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

GREENE: His new album is called "Lickety Split" and it is out today.


ROBERT RANDOLPH & THE FAMILY BAND: (Singing) (Unintelligible) bankers broke the bank and left us to go fish...

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.


ROBERT RANDOLPH & THE FAMILY BAND: (Singing) Me and my lady were doing OK, got money stashed in the bed. Should be angry every day...

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