Pedaling To Popularity With Sacred-Steel Guitarist Robert Randolph

The pedal-steel gospel player will deliver The Word with John Medeski, North Mississippi Allstars

Pedal-steel guitarist Robert Randolph joined the Del McCoury band, a traditional bluegrass outfit, during the Jammy Awards held June 28 in New York's Roseland Ballroom, for some southern-fried sounds. He sat in later with Derek Trucks, the most recent Allman Brothers Band guitarist, for a blazing blues jam. And while Randolph sounded perfectly in tune with each of these musicians, he wasn't exactly comfortable.

"The sound was messed up because the onstage monitors weren't working right," he said from his Irvington, New Jersey, home. "Also, everybody was wasted. It was real strange. I came home and all my clothes smelled like friggin' pot and cigarette smoke."

The smoky club environment isn't an alien setting for most musicians. But Randolph, 23, isn't your typical musician. Although he's played pedal-steel guitar since he was 17, he's only been working rock venues for six months. During that short time he has attracted the interest of Rev. Al Green, Gov't Mule and the Allmans. Jazz keyboardist John Medeski (of Medeski Martin & Wood) and the North Mississippi Allstars recruited him for the upcoming (July 31) eponymous debut of the Word, a collection of originals and gospel standards done in a flashy blues style.

Before Randolph was introduced to the rock community, he played during services at the House of God Church near his home, where he cultivated his innovative style and continues to jam. Although he sounds like a cross between a country slide player and a Chicago bluesman steeped in the music of B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, Randolph developed his fiery technique long before he ever heard the blues.

"I knew who B.B. King was because I'd see him on TV, but I didn't really know what he sounded like," he admitted. "And I'd never even heard of guys like Buddy Guy and Hound Dog Taylor."

While most churches accompany their services with choirs and organists, the House of God has a six-decade tradition of using steel guitars. After the pedal-steel guitar was introduced to the church during the 1970s, the style became known as "sacred steel." The sound has recently begun attracting a cult following in the secular world as well.

Randolph learned to play by watching other steel players in his church. He experienced an epiphany, however, when a friend at the church lent him a tape of the late blues-rock legend Stevie Ray Vaughan.

"I immediately went, 'Oh man, this guy's the best ever," he recalled. "It sounded so original and crazy to me because I didn't even know who Jimi Hendrix was. That led me to the Allman Brothers, the Meters, Gov't Mule and all this other stuff that really affected my playing."

Shortly after Randolph discovered secular rock, it discovered him. After hearing Randolph play at a sacred-steel convention last year, a man named Jim Markel introduced the young musician to manager Gary Waldman, who immediately signed Randolph following an audition and booked him a gig opening for the North Mississippi Allstars in New York.

"John Medeski was there, and I guess he liked what he heard," Randolph said. "Right after the show, he was like, 'Hey, let's record a gospel album together: me, you and the Allstars.' I'm like, 'I don't know who you are but OK, no problem."

Three weeks later, the sacred-steel prodigy found himself in Medeski's Brooklyn studio from 8 p.m. to midnight recording tracks for his first full-length album. The sessions went quickly, and The Word was completed in four days.

Although the album was recorded quickly and spontaneously, it sounds as vibrant, creative and inspiring as many a project that has taken 10 times as long. Medeski's keyboards chime like a cathedral organist and Randolph testifies passionately through his instrument. The introduction to "Call Him by His Name" includes a sinewy passage resembling a lone voice singing God's praises. "Waiting on My Wings" sounds like a jam between Eric Clapton and the Allmans.

"I want my music to lift people up and make them feel good," said Randolph. "When I play music, I try to bring it from my heart so it will connect to someone else's heart."

Beside The Word, Randolph has two albums by his group, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, scheduled for fall release, although his manager is still negotiating with major labels. Al Green invited him to play at his Memphis church in September, and he'll join Gov't Mule onstage during their current tour. Finally, he's trying to arrange some dates with his new favorite band, the Allman Brothers.

Randolph looks forward to all of these gigs, but his real goal is to integrate sacred steel with mainstream R&B and pop.

"I'd love to play with guys like R. Kelly or D'Angelo," he said. "My real dream is to play on a Michael Jackson record. I'm sure that's nearly every musician's dream. He's played with guys like Eddie Van Halen, and mixed orchestras in there, so I'm pretty sure I could do something with him. I'm hoping he'll get word of what I'm doing or hear it and say, 'Wow, let's get that going on a song or two.' I'd probably faint before I even got there."

Not only has sacred steel provided Randolph with the opportunity to achieve mass popularity, it's helped him escape the drugs, violence and other criminal activities that have plagued many of his childhood friends. "I have a song called 'A Prayer,' which will be on my record," he said. "I wrote it after one of my friends was shot and killed. He was just standing on the street and a guy walk up to him and shot him at point-blank range. I was supposed to be with him that same night, but I went home and played pedal steel instead."

He wasn't Randolph's only friend lost to inner-city violence. Another was killed during a drive-by shooting a few months ago. "It's so crazy," he said. "He was a drug dealer, and I grew up in that whole scene, so I could easily have gone that way. Playing pedal steel has definitely kept me alive."