“The Word was the first actual studio recording I ever did,” recalls pedal-steel prophet Robert Randolph. It was a watershed moment. The “sacred steel” gospel guitar tradition kept so close by the House of God Pentecostal Church for many decades had finally been unleashed. Randolph was the genre’s Hendrix, and Luther Dickinson played a somewhat Chas Chandler-like role by introducing Randolph’s gospel to a wide audience as the Word, a band consisting of the North Mississippi Allstars with brother Cody Dickinson on drums and bassist Chris Chew, plus Randolph and jazz organ whiz John Medeski.
“Arhoolie’s Sacred Steel compilation changed my life,” says Dickinson. “Medeski and I had already booked sessions to record a gospel CD when we discovered Robert Randolph’s track “Without God” on the second Arhoolie compilation, Sacred Steel: Live! He opened up for the Allstars, and the stars aligned for the Word.”
Randolph quickly became a Grammy-winning star fronting his Family Band. Dickinson developed the Allstars into a jam scene juggernaut, and spent a few years revitalizing the Black Crowes. The Word gathered occasionally to church up festivals including Bonnaroo, and has finally delivered a devastatingly beautiful sophomore CD, Soul Food [Vanguard].
“We wanted to maintain the first record’s inspirational gospel feel, but mix it up a little and add vocals on a couple of songs,” says Randolph.
Soul Food is a candidate for roots guitar record of the year because of how well it showcases Randolph’s God-given gift to sing through anything with strings, and Dickinson’s inherent ability to dig deep down into a gritty groove. Whether or not it garners any awards, Soul Food answers the eternal question: “What would Jesus do—if he was armed with an array of steel and hollowbody guitars?”
Can you provide a quick lineage of the sacred steel guitar tradition, including what you brought to the party?
Randolph: Willie Eason brought the lap steel guitar in the church back in the ’30s because they couldn’t afford organs. Lorenzo Harrison and Henry Nelson came next. Harrison had a way of using the wah-wah to get a bluesy sound. Nelson played with reckless, soulful abandon, and his notes were so precise. He set and remains the standard. Ted Beard, Calvin Cooke, the Campbell Brothers, and Glenn Lee of the Lee Boys—I grew up under all those guys.
Chuck Campbell was the wild guy of his generation. I took that further by incorporating elements of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s style and approach. I was willing to go the extra mile, and I was willing to go out and play. None of the older players would, because of the church’s strict rules. I came along and sort of broke all the rules—then everybody started to play out [laughs].
How did Soul Food come together?
Dickinson: The record consists of tunes and hymns that players brought in or wrote, but the best parts are inspired ensemble improvisation, and several of them are first takes. We’re following Robert. And it’s not jazz or jam-style improv—it’s church-style. You follow the spirit of the music, and you channel it. We would choose a key that fit our mood and think, “What rhythm am I feeling right now?” We’d follow Robert on an extended jam, and then edit it down.
What signal chains got the most use?
Dickinson: At Brooklyn Studios, where we cut the first part of the record, I used the studio’s ’50s Gibson hollowbody with P-90 pickups—it was like a mini version of an ES-175. Those P-90s were so dynamic. I’d turn it down for clean rhythms, and then I’d turn it up and it would go wild through a Fender Super Reverb and a Marshall half-stack. “Swamp Road” and “Chocolate Cowboy” are good examples of that sound. In Memphis at Royal Studios, where we cut the second batch of tracks, I used their new Gretsch Falcon Center-Block Double Cutaway, which is basically a semi-hollow, double-cutaway version of a White Falcon. The main amp there was a vintage Fender Princeton.
Robert, you’re famous for playing a 13-string Fessenden pedal-steel, but you’ve also been playing a Jackson Steel with fewer strings.
Randolph: Right. I played my 12-and 13-string pedal-steels on Soul Food, but I also played a few new inventions. The 6-string steel you see in the video for Robert Randolph & the Family Band’s “Amped Up” is a Jackson Steel Guitars SlideKing. It’s built to play standing up, and its whole design helps me play and write songs differently. I had mine built with four pedals, and I tune it to open E. From the thickest to thinnest strings, that’s E, B, E, G#, B, E. Pedal one takes both Bs to C#, creating a 6th chord, which can be minor in some positions. That’s the normal country-style A and B thing. Pedal two allows me to get minor by dropping the G# down to a G. Pedal three takes the middle E down to a D for a dominant 7th chord. Pedal four takes the G# up a half-step to A for that suspended, traditional pedal-steel kind of chord.
I also have a new 7-string SlideKing G7. The extra string is in the second-highest slot, and I tune it to D, so the high 7th is right there. Having that open-D string facilitates getting a little more into the pentatonic scale.
I’ve been working on these pedal-steel innovations with Jackson Steel Guitars because I’ve heard all the issues people have with pedal steel—too much money, too many strings, and too many pedals. I’ve also been working with Peavey on an introductory way for guitar players to get into playing lap slide.
What’s the Peavey story?
Randolph: The Peavey Power Slide is an affordable 6-string lap-steel that sounds good. You can put it on your lap, or use the included strap that allows you to stand up and walk around and play. It has a hum-bucker in the bridge designed by Hartley Peavey himself with a coil tap that allows you to get a sound similar to a Fender Stratocaster. I made some suggestions to Hartley to improve the overall quality of the Power Slide, and my upcoming signature version will have a couple of unique features, including a single-coil pickup in the neck position.
How did you two connect?
Randolph: I actually called him about designing a signature amp. The idea was to find an affordable way to get a sound like a Dumble. It’s solid-state, but our new design sounds as good or better than a tube amp. He’s not a big fan of tubes because of the maintenance. Hartley invented a new speaker that can handle 1,000 watts. My cabinet is a 350-watt 2x12, and it’s the loudest 350 watts you’ll ever hear. We finished the Robert Randolph Signature Pedal Steel Amp three weeks ago, and it’s going into production.
Did you use the amp on Soul Food?
Randolph: Yes, it’s the first prototype. Its digital chorus effect is based on the old Peavey Stereo Chorus 212. It has a spring reverb and other effects built in as well. You can hear all its variations on “The Highest.”
Was it the workhorse, or did you use a gang of amps?
Randolph: I had my amp at Brooklyn Recording, but I didn’t take it to Memphis. We went to Royal Studios specifically to capture the kind of classic tones for which they’re famous. They have a system—it’s plug and play.
The first single, “Come By Here,” is powerful and tribal, and it features some triplet-based slide licks that have a sort of nasty take on a fiddle sound. What’s that?
Randolph: That’s the sound of my signature Power Slide through a Fender amp. I wouldn’t play that way on pedal-steel. The band was on a break at Royal, so it started out just Cody and me. Luther heard us and came running in. We had to do a second edit because on the first one you could hear Luther plugging in his guitar—bam, bam, feedback! Eventually Medeski and Chew jumped in on keys and bass, and it turned into “Come By Here.”
I notice a similar hot tone and fiddle-style sound at the end of “Play All Day” and on the “Soul Food II” solo.
Randolph: I used the same Power Slide on those. We did about ten songs in about a day and half in Memphis.
“Chocolate Cowboy” is a clearly lighthearted, but it features well-articulated, traditional pedal-steel techniques. Did you study the country music masters?
Randolph: Our church’s headquarters were in Nashville, and every year they had a two-and-a-half week event called the General Assembly. Through the years we’d all go to the pedal-steel shops and hang out with players including Paul Franklin, Lloyd Green, and Buddy Emmons. I became close with Lloyd and Buddy. They would come by, or sit on the phone with me saying, “Try this lick—now try that.” I studied country a lot. I just didn’t have quite enough of a chance to go down that lane. We’ve actually had “Chocolate Cowboy” in the pipeline for years.
Dickinson: I take the hillbilly-jazz, Memphis rockabilly angle. I like the chromatic, Sun Records, Scotty Moore, anything-goes type of hotrod guitar playing. I’m not really a country player at all. Being a Tele man is a life decision [laughs].
How does playing with Robert make you play differently?
Dickinson: Playing with Robert in the Word is one of the rare chances I get to focus on playing rhythm guitar. I like to help drive the direction of the improvisation by locking in harmonically with Robert and John, and then translating that into the rhythmic commonality I have with Cody. It’s a real joy playing rhythm guitar in the Word. Playing lead is hard with Robert around because he plays so loud and he doesn’t lay out [laughs]! But I love it—I’d rather back him up any day as opposed to doing freestyle Luther improv. Who wants to hear that?
“Glory Glory” has an entirely different sound—ripping country gospel on a resonator.
Randolph: That’s my new Jackson Steel SlideKing R6. It’s a 6-string resonator with three footpedals. We recorded that live in the studio gathered around a single microphone.
“Early in the Moanin’ Time” is essentially a three-minute breakdown featuring some super soulful, deep-register slide that sounds pretty demonic for a gospel record.
Randolph: We were recording another song, and when we finished I was playing my Mullen 12-string down on the very low B string. The tape just happened to be rolling. That moaning thing is actually a signature sacred-steel sound. I could walk into our church right now, play that, and everyone would be like, “Oh, thank you Jesus!” We’re ready to have church now.
I understand that many sacred steel players have been exiled from the church in the past decade, and now play secular venues. Can you share a closing sentiment on what that means to you?
Randolph: “You’ve got to choose between playing outside and playing in here,” the church would tell you. We all know that doesn’t make sense, but that’s their stance. It bothers a lot of the younger guys, and the older guys too. It doesn’t bother me because playing outside is my church. Playing everywhere is church. We’re at festivals inspiring people, and people are inspiring us. That’s what life is really about.