Ray Charles was one of the first people to take gospel music and turn it into secular (or “Devil’s”) music, ultimately changing the course of popular American music. Aretha Franklin found similar success taking the skills she learned and honed in church and bringing them to mainstream music. Though not reaching the superstardom of those two artists, Robert Randolph has taken the style of music that he learned in church, turned it secular, and has become successful in his own right. Yet the difference between him and many other gospel-turned-secular artists is that Randolph is not known for his voice, but for his pedal steel guitar playing.
Robert Randolph grew up going to a House of God Church in Orange, NJ. This Christian denomination is known for having a different style of gospel music than most churches. In House of God churches the lead instrument is a pedal steel or lap steel guitar, and many of their songs are instrumental, with the guitars “singing” praise to the Lord. Thus, this style of music is known as Sacred Steel.
The genre was more or less unknown to people outside of church members, until the late 1990s when Arhoolie Records released a handful of albums by Sacred Steel artists. Yet it was the 1999 album Sacred Steel Live!, which was a collection of live congregational recordings, that would be the game changer. The album found its way to the hands of the members of North Mississippi Allstars (who were already fans of the genre) who in turn showed it to John Medeski. Though the album mainly featured the Campbell Brothers, it was the playing of a young Robert Randolph that caught their ear. The four men got in contact with the prodigy and soon formed The Word, releasing their eponymous album in 2001, an all-instrumental gospel album. Though the album was critically acclaimed, it was the band’s live shows that began getting people’s attention, particularly the fiery playing and stage presence of Randolph. This in turn led to Randolph forming his own band, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, becoming a well known and respected musician (he’s been featured several times on Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival).
Having solidified his place in the music industry, Randolph has decided to recognize his musical mentors, showcasing them on the album Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers. The Slide Brothers are Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, and Chuck and Darick Campbell (of the Campbell Brothers), all Sacred Steel icons. Each man is a beast on the steel guitar (particularly Chuck Campbell), with Cooke and Ghent being fantastic singers as well.
The album is a mix of secular covers (though with religious overtones), traditionals, and straight up gospel tunes, and every track has outstanding musicianship and killer guitar work. The wide range of extremely well-done covers include The Allman Brothers’ “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” George Harrison‘s “My Sweet Lord” (though omitting all Hare Krishna references), Fatboy Slim‘s “Praise You,” and Elmore James‘ “It Hurts Me Too” and “The Sky Is Crying,” as well as Eric Clapton‘s version of the traditional “Motherless Children.” The blending of secular and gospel traditions creates a unique celebration of music, while also showing off the talents of some great, largely unknown musicians.
Though billed as a four man Sacred Steel supergroup, there is not one song on the album that features all four Slide Brothers at the same time. The closest they come is on three tracks, where three of the Brothers are performing, “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” “My Sweet Lord,” and “It Hurts Me Too.” However, all three of these songs feature Chuck and Darick Campbell on steel guitar, with either Ghent or Cooke on vocals. Those two do play together on “Sunday School Blues” and “Catch That Train,” but it’s a bit disappointing to not have all four (or five if you include Randolph) playing at the same time on even one single track.
Another interesting aspect of this album is that there is a rotating group of backing musicians throughout. Five of the eleven songs feature The Campbell Brothers as the backing band (who are a fantastic group in their own right), while three others feature The Family Band (one of which has none of The Slide Brothers, “Praise You”). Though this doesn’t take away from high quality of musicianship that engulfs the entire album, it is just an interesting note that shows that this album is more of a collaboration of Sacred Steel icons rather than an endeavor by a supergroup.
Finally, there is the fact that Sacred Steel is known to be a very instrumental-heavy genre, yet the only instrumental track is the traditional “Wade In The Water.” While all the other tracks do showcase the fantastic skills of the four Slide Brothers, this track, played by the Campbell Brothers, is probably the best example of what Sacred Steel is all about. You can really hear why they consider steel guitar playing a different kind of singing. The Campbells’ guitar work soars throughout, evoking an image of preachers and pastors singing and praising their Lord with intense emotion. It’s a shame that there are no other instrumental tracks on the album, because these songs are truly the essence of Sacred Steel.
Still, there is no denying that Robert Randolph Presents: The Slide Brothers is a very powerful and energetic album that features highly skilled musicians playing some great songs. Fans of great guitar playing (especially slide guitar) will love this album, as will classic rock and blues lovers. Though the album features gospel musicians, it does an excellent job reinforcing the fact that without gospel, there would be no blues or R&B, and thus no rock ‘n’ roll. It also preaches that no matter where it comes from, music should be a celebration, bringing joy to all who care to listen. Hopefully, this album not only brings that feeling to listeners, but also leads them to discover and appreciate a style of music that all people should love, no matter what their religious affiliation.
For more (non-expert) information on Sacred Steel, here is a paper I wrote on the genre back in 2004 for a History of Blues class in college: Sacred Steel