Over the course of six studio albums since 2003, Robert Randolph & The Family Band have used their music to pick people up.
Coming out of the Pentecostal church, pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph entered the non-secular world alongside keyboardist John Medeski and members of the North Mississippi Allstars on the self-titled 2001 album The Word, exposing the tradition of sacred steel music to a whole new audience.
On Randolph's latest studio album Brighter Days, the Family Band's sixth, the group worked with producer Dave Cobb at historic RCA Studio A in Nashville.
Co-founded in 1964, the famed studio has been home to legendary country and western artists like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. Saved from the wrecking ball in 2014, the studio has more recently housed sessions by musicians like Ben Folds and Chris Stapleton. But there's a blues history too - Even B.B. King recorded in the room.
While Cobb is known for his work conjuring up an old school country sound with artists like Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile, his focus on sound and tradition, and his upbringing in the Pentecostal church, made him a perfect fit alongside Robert Randolph & The Family Band.
"We really wanted to make a record with Dave Cobb. Because all of the records he makes just sound really great - great quality. He’s a young guy but he likes to record old school with old, great sounding mics that are engineered properly and recorded properly without losing a lot of the edge," said Randolph of working with the producer on Brighter Days. "We just sought to really capture all of the different elements of my roots, some classic rock sounds and a lot of things that have helped us grow over the years to really evolve as songwriters. And we really wanted to include the family band. My sister sang lead on a few of the songs, which was really cool."
I spoke with Robert Randolph about working with Cobb on Brighter Days, covering Pops Staples on the album, the influence of The Staple Singers on his band and much more. A lightly edited transcript of our phone conversation follows below. Robert Randolph & The Family Band perform two shows on Thursday, February 6, 2020 at City Winery.
How did you first wind up crossing paths with Dave Cobb?
Robert Randolph: We really wanted to make a record with Dave Cobb. Because all of the records he makes just sound really great - great quality. He’s a young guy but he likes to record old school with old, great sounding mics that are engineered properly and recorded properly without losing a lot of the edge. So it was awesome.
I had been listening to a bunch of his music - from Chris Stapleton to Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell. And when you hear those records, it’s the sound that strikes you first. It’s a very old-school sort of produced record but the sound sounds modern and big. There’s not a whole lot going on but it’s this true, beautiful sound.
So I started to research and I found out who he was and it turned out we had a bunch of mutual friends. So I said, “Hey, someone’s gotta give me Dave Cobb’s number…” So I wind up texting him and he immediately texts me back. And he just started rattling off these ideas of how we were going to work together. Before we even finished the agreement he was like, “Hey, here we go. Let’s start working. Let’s start thinking...”
Working as he does to bring back the old country sound, not the contemporary country sound, Dave is no stranger to the pedal steel. And I think people kind of tend to miss the fact that old country music and blues music were largely coming from the same place and same experiences, using some of the same instrumentation - even if it was being presented differently. Did those ideas kind of tie together when it came to you guys working on this album?
RR: It’s really just about recording what’s true to the artist and who you are.
A lot of times, we artists collaborate with a songwriter and there’s been many artists that have written songs or start singing songs that have nothing to do with who they are. And I know with Dave, he doesn’t care about any of that. He doesn’t care about some song that somebody else gave you that they thought was a good song for you. He’s like, “No, let’s write and record a song. Tell me about your day, what’s been going on?” He has a few of his writers there and we all sit around and brainstorm with the band and get in and sort of record records the way they used to be made. And it’s much easier.
There’s not a whole lot of this overthinking. You’re just having a conversation.
I read that you wrote “Baptize Me” the first day in the studio. What was that process like and how long did you spend recording the Brighter Days album?
RR: We recorded in Nashville at Dave Cobb’s studio - Studio A at RCA. It’s the old historic RCA studio where Johnny Cash and all of those records were being made.
The sheer just sort of writing and recording the record was about two weeks. At the end, we brought in a choir because we really wanted to hone in and kind of get the choir to really add to these inspirational gospel, rock ideas that we had.
We recorded for about two weeks, came back after Christmas and mixed and mastered it and we were done.
You cover Pops Staples on the album. And I always feel like people take it for granted here in Chicago that we’re lucky enough to have Mavis Staples out there singing and speaking on our behalf. Sharing a similar background the way you guys do coming out of the church as a family band, what kind of an example or blueprint did The Staple Singers set for you over the years as you began to explore the non-secular world?
RR: My whole family has sort of grown up in the Pentecostal church - grandmothers, great grandparents, parents.
At that time, Pentecostal and Baptist churches were very, very strict. They didn’t believe in sort of really bringing the world together. It was like, “Let’s leave those people alone.” And Pops Staples and The Staple Singers really brought about to the world the sound of gospel and inspirational music with these great original songs.
All of the songs are joyful and sort of spiritual pick-me-up songs. But these songs weren’t just about god and Jesus - they just made you feel joy. And that’s always sort of been my goal coming from the Pentecostal church.
With this record, Dave Cobb grew up in the Pentecostal church himself. So we had that kind of immediate connection and sort of knew how to just write these songs and record songs that you are who you are - that fit the artist, that fit me and the band - instead of going out and saying, “Let’s record something for radio.” Or, “Let’s record something that everyone else is doing.”
Something I've identified with your music over the years, one of the things I always take from it, is that ability to pick people up. Especially in times like these, how important of a role is that for music to play?
RR: For me, really, from having these conversations with [Eric] Clapton and Santana, and Greg Allman before he died, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and all of these different people, all of them are just like, “You’re the guy that always comes and uplifts people’s spirits. Just make sure you stick to that. Because that’ll be what you’re known for. Not for these other characters that the music industry will sort of force you to become.”
That’s really how I grew up. In church, we would sit at home and practice music. And we would always try to practice these tunes and compose different jams - because the role was to always be the person that would be there to pick up the church service and put a smile on somebody’s face and lift the burdens off from the week past.
When we talk about music and we talk about the church - and I think you can get this from music whether you’re a churchgoing person or not - I think of that idea of spirituality. Live music, especially, seems like a really great way to express that and bring people together at a time of divisiveness. How important of a role is that for music to play today?
RR: It’s very important. I think it’s the one thing that a lot of people forget about.
We all like to joke about what’s going on - Trump, and this and that, and this guy or whatever political beliefs he or she may have. There’s so many people depressed. There’s so many things that can make one depressed - social media. Following the wrong people. Somebody trying to put their beliefs on you or telling you that you have to be this way or that way. So, for me, it’s always finding ways to write these songs that speak to people.
Life is a wonderful thing. Life is the gift of life - that’s what we call it in church. And we should all use life - at least I do, as much as I can spread that - I’m here to uplift people.
Don’t forget, when we had the 60s movement in music, all of those artists were using songs to uplift people. Because there were a lot of things going on. John Lennon. In the late 60s and 70s, you had The Beatles, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan - you had the biggest stars in the world writing songs to uplift people to bring the world together. And as major artists, mainstream artists, we’ve sort of gotten away from all of that.
So I think it’s important - not think, I know it’s important - for us to sort of get back to that.
Robert Randolph & The Family Band
Thursday, February 6, 2020
Two shows: 6:30PM and 9:30PM
Doors open: 5PM and 9PM
Tickets for each show start at $45