To sacred steel guitarist Robert Randolph, the 14-year gap between The Word's self-titled 2001 debut and its Soul Food LP, due May 5, was merely a matter of scheduling conflicts. The initial project with John Medeski and all three of the North Mississippi Allstars propelled Randolph to fame with his own band, and the group got back together for a follow up last year.
"We've known each other for a long time now and have played together over the years at festivals — Bonnaroo, Jam Cruise," Randolph says. "We maintained that connection and always talked about another album but could never find the time. In early 2014, we all carved out some time, focused and found a lot of creative energy."
Randolph was a teenager working in New York City and had never played outside of a church when he was recruited to perform with an opening act for the North Mississippi Allstars at the Manhattan enclave the Bowery Ballroom. Not long after that, he again met the psychedelic blues power trio — brothers Luther (guitar, vocals) and Cody Dickinson (drums, electric washboard) with Chris Chew (bass) — this time at the Brooklyn studio of Medeski, the keyboard/organ wizard of avant-garde jazz act and jam band favorite Medeski Martin & Wood. Medeski and the Allstars had forged a bond during a shared 1998 tour over two Arhoolie Records compilations that introduced them to sacred-steel sounds and legends. They wanted to do their own gospel album and thought Randolph and his lap and pedal steel guitar would be the perfect fit for the all-instrumental project.
In 2001, The Word released its debut filled with traditional songs such as "I'll Fly Away." The project made Randolph into a star with jam band fans, and Robert Randolph & the Family Band signed a big-splash, multi-record deal with Warner Bros. Eventually Randolph and the label had a falling out; two years ago, Randolph signed with Blue Note.
Randolph learned to play in the sacred steel tradition in the Orange, New Jersey church his parents and grandparents had attended since the 1930s. "Our church is the House of God Church," Randolph says. "I grew up in that tradition, with its lap steel and pedal steel. People would come up to me, 'Do you want to play like Eric Clapton?' No, I want to play like Calvin Cook, a sacred-steel player in a tradition still very much alive in my church."
Some of the Allstars also were familiar with gospel traditions.
"[Chew] grew up Pentecostal," Randolph says. "Luther's mom was the pianist at a Pentecostal church near Memphis in north Mississippi. And their father was such a blues guy, such a blues pioneer. The Mississippi guys always bring a little gospel flavor."
The Word recorded Soul Food in New York and the Memphis home of Hi Records, the studio where Al Green recorded his biggest hits and Mark Ronson laid down "Uptown Funk." Each member contributed original songs, including Cody Dickinson's "New Word Order," inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Randoph's sacred steel shines throughout Soul Food's 13 tracks, notably on "Glory, Glory" on which he plays a customized, rarely heard acoustic pedal steel guitar. He also delivers a moving solo on his song "The Highest."
"I think all of our music has everything in its intention," Randolph says. "Mine is more Christian-based, so it's more sacred or gospel, but I'm just looking to inspire people, pick them up through positive music. Life is about learning and growing and inspiring one another to do the best we can."