Randolph goes global with Sacred Steel gospel


The music Robert Randolph heard in church has sent him on a global mission to spread the sound of Sacred
That gospel music, born and nurtured within the Pentecostal Church of God, is no stranger to the ears of
Black Swamp Arts Festival attendees. The festival has hosted both the masters of the genre, starting
with Calvin Cooke in 2006, and the younger generation such as the Lee Boys.
Randolph though is the most famous of this brotherhood of pedal steel guitarists. He’s traveled the
globe, playing for crowds numbers in the tens of thousands, both as an opener for stars including Eric
Clapton and Dave Matthews, and on his own.
Randolph and the Family Band will headline the Black Swamp Arts Festival with a Saturday Main Stage show
at 8 p.m. In a recent telephone interview he said “it’ll be awesome” to be part of the festival’s
tradition of hosting Sacred Steel bands.
Players such as Cooke and Aubrey Ghent from the Slide Brothers, who performed last year, were the guiding
lights in his musical development. The same way rock musicians listened to old blues masters, Randolph
listened to Cooke and Ghent. “Those guys were my Muddy Waters,” he said.
Randolph took this in not at some smoky club or from scratchy vinyl, but from church services and tape
recordings he and others made of those services. “You try to take in all that information.”
And when he had questions, “I’d call those guys at all times of the morning and night to get all the
pointers I could,” Randolph said. Even now he’ll turn to them for guidance.
“Those older guys are the originators of our sound and styles. It’s always great to be criticized by
those guys.”
Randolph is part of a line of steel guitarists coming out of the church. Starting with Willie Eason,
Ghent’s uncle, in the 1930s, “each one was a new version of the originators.”
Randolph’s own leap came when he was introduced to rhythm and blues, blues, and rock by some relatives.
Up to that point, he only knew church music.
Then he heard Stevie Ray Vaughn. “That changed the direction of my playing,” he said.
Based in New York, he started jamming around the city, and the word of his playing spread. That led to
the formation of the Family Band about a dozen years ago. The band, which truly features his relatives,
Marcus Randolph, Danyel Morgan and Lenesha Randolph, went on to tour and record.
Their most recent album, “Lickety Split,” shows the band’s range from the acid funk of the opening “Amped
Up” to the heartfelt “Welcome Home,” a ballad that addresses the experience of a soldier’s return.
“Born Again” is a nod to the gospel roots of the music. Randolph said he still goes to church, but not to
The musicians’ outreach to secular audiences has not gone over well with the church’s elders. Randolph
would just as soon avoid the controversy. The older players, more ensconced in the church, couldn’t
distance themselves as easily.
Randolph believes that if Cooke “had gone out when he was younger, he could have been a star. “He has
this relentless style.”
As someone who continues to benefit from the guidance of his elders, Randolph wants to help younger
musicians, not just within his community.
He’s involved in a music program in his native New Jersey. “We’re just trying to get music back in the
hands of inner city kids. … These kid need older guys like us to step up and be mentors for them.”
Music and the arts are an essential part of education, Randolph said. “Without art, without singing,
without playing, you’re not activating the whole creative mind, the rhythmic part of the body.”
If that energy doesn’t find release through the arts, it will find release in other, anti-social ways, he
Festivals also offer an important outlet. “I take my hat off to these festivals,” he said. “They know the
void left for these younger artists. They create a place, a vibe, where people can get all these rhythms
in their minds.”

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