Robert Randolph is an artist who recently received his sixth Grammy nomination. This one is for his new album Brighter Days in the category of Best Contemporary Blues Album. He’s in pretty good company considering Gary Clark Jr. and Southern Avenue are nominated in the same category. By phone, the esteemed pedal steel guitar player and band leader discussed his background in gospel music, his latest Grammy nomination, and recording with Dave Cobb.
You grew up with nothing but gospel music. What was the reaction of your family when you started listening to and playing things other than gospel?
Growing up in a small Pentecostal church, some people were pretty shocked that it happened. I was only 20 years old going on 21. It didn’t bother me much. For me it was eye-opening to let you know how screwed up a lot of church people are. It helps you understand the history of people that go to church as opposed to people who just believe in God. It’s been going on for thousands of years, and it ain’t going to change any time soon. It’s always going to be – in every religion – whenever anybody steps out. You can go through history: Marvin Gaye, Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Sly Stone, Beyonce. It’s been going on forever, For me, it’s just bringing out this sound that was hidden in our church for 100 years.
Was there a particular artist that compelled you to embrace music other than gospel?
Stevie Ray Vaughan was the first one. That was my introduction to the blues. After Stevie Ray was Sly and The Family Stone. A lot of what I set out to do is if Stevie Ray and Sly Stone had a band. That’s what I want it to sound like. That’s what I set out to do. [There have] been many other bands: the Allman Brothers, Derek and The Dominoes, so many other bands that have inspired and given me something to work toward.
What does it mean to you that Brighter Days was nominated for a Grammy?
It meant a lot, probably more so than the other times. I had set out to record this type of record with the elements of gospel and blues, that really rocked out and was funky. I wanted to have all these songs that spoke to me: “Baptize Me”, “Cry Over Me”. First and foremost, the songs sounded great, were well-written and could make people dance, but I also want people to look inside themselves.
You addressed it a little bit, but how does this one compare to the other nominations?
It felt really good to want to record these songs. It really felt good. I can’t say enough about it. Working with Dave Cobb, he grew up in a Pentecostal church himself. We immediately clicked. We set out this goal. Most times when you hire a guy like Dave Cobb to produce your record, you gotta pay him a lot of money. They’re like, “I’ve hired this big-time producer, I might as well go for the radio hit songs. Might as well do whatever is on the radio.” We didn’t set out to do any of that. He’s really not that kind of guy. We’re going to write and record songs that best fit me and whatever our vision is at the time. That was the most satisfying part of it all.
What did Dave Cobb bring to the album?
Authenticity. I had brought to the table about 20 songs I had written. Dave Cobb is just one of those guys. His concern is how you feel today. What kind of song would you write today? Let’s sit down and play music. This is who you are. You come from church and a gospel background. Your fans love a mix of blues, gospel, funk, rock, and all that. We’re going to add elements from all that. Instead of saying, “Let’s listen to the radio. Let’s try and get up on the songs like that.” That’s how most records are made. He just wants artist authenticity. Be who you are as an artist and a person. You be you.
Did it help you to record in the moment like that?
That’s how I really work. If you catch us on a tour bus, or after a show, or on a day off, or sound check where we’re just playing things, making them up on the spot, we pretty much have a song done. That’s usually the best way to do it. To me it was the best way to work. Many times as songwriters and artists, we say, “Hey man, let’s get together and write some songs today.” Then you send it to the bass player and the drummer. The sound of music that everything is playing together and everything’s flowing together because everybody is in the room. As opposed to piecing things together. That to me is the most natural way to record. Imagine all those great James Brown records, and all those guys say, “Yeah man. Send me some files.” You know that won’t work. When you hear that music, you can tell everybody’s talking to each other. For me it was very natural. When you spend time doing it the other way, you tend to forget about it. This is just so much easier.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
I’d probably be on one of these house flipping shows. That’s what I do as my hobby. My father was an electrician. I grew up doing construction and electrical work, plumbing, and all this kind of stuff. That’s what I do when I’m not playing music.