The New Jersey-based dynamo pedal steel player, Robert Randolph, who was recently nominated for his 6th Grammy Award for his 2019 LP, Brighter Days, is a member of many prestigious musical lineages. And a piece of each shows up in the standout moments on songwriter’s latest record, which is up for Best Contemporary Blues Album at this year’s show.
First and foremost, Randolph is one of many in a big family, the members of which comprise a long line of musicians before him, as well as some of his bandmates on stage. Next, there’s the Pentecostal church in which Randolph grew up that boasts its own 100-year-old archives of music recorded by parishioners. Then there’s his spot amongst the great American blues guitarists, which is assuredly secured. But if you ask Randolph about what the genre itself means to him, his response is poignant and universal.
“To me, the blues is a whole bunch of your sad feelings coming to life,” says Randolph. “All of the sadness and all of your fears and bad thoughts. We all have fears and sadness, things that give us doubt.”
Randolph, who is known as a guitar player first – indeed, Rolling Stone named him one of the 100 best in 2003 – also has a smooth and compelling singing voice. But he didn’t start singing in public until the year he recorded his first release, a celebrated live album record at the Wetlands Preserve club in Tribeca, New York City.
“I wasn’t no singer in my church,” Randolph recalls. “I was always a musician. It’s funny, because we were just doing this TV show this morning and my cousin, who’s much older than me, said, ‘Man, remember that time when we were in the studio in, like, 2002 and I said, Boy, if you want to have a long music career, you got to start singing!’”
In church, many call the pedal steel a “sacred” instrument. But, as Randolph was growing up, no one was playing it in his congregation. So, at 14-years-old, his father bought him one, but Randolph, a drummer then, let it sit for two years until he was 16. Then, as if reprising the role of King Arthur, the instrument, which has a long history in Hawaiian and then Country music, called to Randolph like Excalibur did from its stone. Randolph took to it and mastered it.
“The concept of going to church,” Randolph explains, “is about people coming together who have had some version of a bad week, or maybe things went well, and rejoicing. For me, the purpose was always to create music to be able to pick people up. I want to be this positive light in the world, to make people smile and dance and be happy.”
But, despite the aim for joy, things didn’t always come easy. Music, Randolph says, and particularly the instrument he’s chosen, remain intimidating. To play pedal steel, one must not only understand scales and key signatures, but there are levers and foot pedals and finger picks and myriad other little details to continue to take into account during each session.
“It’s a mind-boggling instrument,” says Randolph, who sometimes writes parts so difficult to replicate that he forgets how he first did it. “Each time you play it, you have to be ready for the challenge.”
If Brighter Days is any indication, though, it’s clear Randolph is adept at continuing to meet that challenge. The 10-track record is uplifting and thoughtful, generous and tough. Standouts include the buzzy “Baptize Me,” rugged “Simple Man,” fiery “Cut Em Loose” and funky “Second Hand Man.” And to celebrate the LP at the Grammys, Randolph says, is “very exciting.”
“Whenever you get a Grammy nomination,” he says, “you know that your peers have recognized something that you’ve worked hard on. That’s what’s cool about it.”
And while the musician’s legend continues to grow, he keeps an eye on the young up-and-coming artists making waves in music. Randolph has shared the stage with players like Eric Clapton, Ozzy Osbourne, Dave Matthews, John Mayer and B.B. King. But he also loves newer artists like Kingfish and Jonny Lang. More than anything, though, it’s that divine feeling Randolph can achieve at the peak of a song or solo that drives him to keep making new work.
“There’s no better feeling in the world,” Randolph says. “It’s really the reason why most of us become these different beings when we’re on stage. It starts with the audience and then we band together and feed off of it. To achieve this great moment that we didn’t practice – it’s like, where did that come from? That’s magic.”