As he walks on stage, dressed in baggy jeans and sports jersey -- hip-hop's de rigueur uniform -- Robert Randolph looks like he should pick up the microphone and start rapping. But instead, he takes a seat behind a custom-made pedal steel guitar and coaxes from it some of the most soul- stirring, electrifying gospel music imaginable.
The 24-year-old New Jersey native acknowledges the disconnect between his appearance and his music. "I want to make music the old-time way, about the goodness of life," Randolph says, "instead of about how much money you make, instead of about how big girls' butts are."
As heard on Live at the Wetlands, the first release by Randolph and the Family Band, he's hugely successful at meeting those goals, creating music that enters body and soul almost like a spiritual possession.
Long familiar primarily as the mournful sound on classic country songs, the pedal steel has led a parallel life for the last 70 years in the House of God Pentecostal church, known for its intensely physical and passionate worship style. The pedal steel, which was introduced into the House of God by Georgian Willie Eason in the 1930s, is a key participant in services, responding, echoing and emphasizing the sermon's message and emotional power. Dubbed "sacred steel," this little-known use of the pedal steel was recently documented by folklorist Robert Stone, who has produced a series of recordings featuring the genre's most prominent sacred steel players, including Randolph, on the Arhoolie label.
Randolph began his musical career playing in church services, and even now, with his audience increasingly secular, inspiration remains a primary motivation. "I'm trying to reach somebody's heart," he says. "Playing in church, we're taught that with every note we play, we try to come in contact with each person in the audience -- it's about connection."
While playing the pedal steel in the style he learned at church, Randolph has found unlikely new fans in the jam-band scene. It all started just two years ago, when the Family Band was booked to open for the North Mississippi Allstars at New York's Bowery Ballroom. Word spread quickly, and soon Randolph and the band were opening for Medeski, Martin and Wood. Last year, John Medeski and the Allstars tapped Randolph to collaborate with them on the instrumental album, The Word. More recently, Randolph opened for, and jammed with, the Dave Matthews Band at Madison Square Garden.
His recent appearance at the jam-band-heavy Bonnaroo festival, playing with bluegrass legend Del McCoury in front of thousands, is a far cry from the House of God. But Randolph doesn't view the transition as particularly awkward. "When I write something, I think about all people. I try to bring somebody out of a negative state of mind. You don't have to preach Jesus and God, just stay focused in life and give them what helps me out, to 'go up the ladder.'"
Focusing on his mission "for the sake of the music," Randolph and the Family Band are keeping busy. They record a new album for Warner Bros. later this year and back up the Blind Boys of Alabama on their new album, due out in September. Randolph also joins DJ Logic and Norah Jones on the new Dirty Dozen Brass Band CD, Medicated Magic, and he's set to produce a new album for fellow sacred steel player Calvin Cooke on his own label.
Randolph has been influenced by a wide range of secular music, including the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Allman Brothers. Most importantly, as a relative novice on a difficult instrument, Randolph discovered classic country music, where the pedal steel is prominent. He admits he can't match the technique of country greats such as Pete Drake, Buddy Emmons and Speedy West, but, he says, "I still grab the audience. It's all about the feeling in the music. The wrong notes can be the right notes. At the Bonnaroo festival, I listened to a tape of the performance afterward, and I was so out of tune. But the crowd went insane.
"I want to get the message out that music can be fun, it brings love and happiness to people as well."