Hot, young guitarists spring have sprung forth every few years for more decades than I can be bothered to count. Each generation spawns a new crop and while many are momentarily interesting, “guitar god” is a cannibalistic business and very few have much shelf life. There are exceptions and Robert Randolph has taken a bold step forward, daring to join the few and the proud.
Randolph is a unique talent as anyone who has listened to the work of his first three albums with his Family Band or his collaboration with John Medeski and the Dickinson boys of North Mississippi Allstar fame can attest. There is more to Randolph than a dazzling command of the steel guitar, or Sacred Steel as it is referred to in the Church Of God where he first learned the instrument.
There are a host of things that set Randolph apart and one of them becomes obvious in the liner notes he wrote for We Walk This Road. After completing the tour for the Colorblind album, he went in search of a producer with special ears and knowledge; someone who understood the connections of his rock and gospel roots and who would, as Randolph puts it, “help us put those things in their most compelling context.” He found that producer in T Bone Burnett.
I’ve heard people described as having “old souls.” It’s an expression I’ve never much liked but it is an effective bit of shorthand for Randolph. He is still a very young man but his musical upbringing is quite old, having learned his instrument through the traditions of his church. The crafty, versatile Burnett was able to speak Randolph’s language, having studied an impossibly vast scope of American and world musics. When artist and producer got on the same page, they brewed something special blending blues, roots, gospel, soul, and spirit into a potent, magical cocktail.
“If I Had My Way” incorporates a portion of Blind Willie Johnson’s “If I Had My Way” into an original composition Randolph co-wrote with Burnett and an assist from, Ben Harper and it is a magnificent, soaring piece of music fusing gospel and blues with folk. Randolph uses Johnson’s original as a jumping off point and actually “samples” a piece of that original and uses it to segue in and out of his own composition. The segue concept is one used throughout the record with the idea being to tie the music Randolph is making in the present with its roots. There are times these segues are effective bridges between songs but there are times when they do more to distract than connect.
Randolph’s re-imagining of Bob Dylan’s "Shot of Love" hits with the weight and force of a heavyweight’s fist. Dylan is so easy and obvious to cover that nearly everyone does it but so few capture the essence and power of his songs, settling to merely sing them "better” or “prettier.” This version takes the power of the Dylan original and amplifies and magnifies.
The beautiful “I Still Belong To Jesus” opens with more than a passing feeling of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” The airy, ethereal intro gives way to a more substantive, anthemic song that not only proclaims Randolph’s devotion but also delivers a unifying message of social justice. This is another of Randolph’s achievements in the material on this record, both the songs he wrote and those he’s chosen to interpret on the record. There is a theme and a message on this record but it’s one that uplifts rather than preaches. Even John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier,” which can be delivered as scathing, anti-war screed, is a plea for peace and understanding rather than heated rhetoric in Randolph’s hands.
We Walk This Road is soul music in nearly every connotation of the word and its title is instructive. This is the kind of deep, rich, authentic music the world needs and the music contained therein should be experienced as a journey from beginning to end; he wanted his music to have context and We Walk This Road exquisitely provides that. With this album Randolph has made a record worthy of his immense gift and that is cause for celebration and repeated listens.