The 33-year-old frontman of Robert Randolph & The Family Band has strong roots in gospel music. As a kid, he grew up attending the House of God church in Orange, N.J. That's where he first played the "sacred steel" guitar, a driving force behind the band's soulful new album, Lickety Split.
In the 1920s, African-American Pentecostal churches began using the steel guitar in place of an organ. From there, it became an instrument that helped usher in a new gospel style.
"It's been going on since my grandmother was born," Randolph says. "Guys bought these cheap lap steels for $30, $40, $50 and started this rhythmic sound, while trying to mimic the human voice after the old deacons and elders would finish singing."
It's an instrument that Randolph says he always imagined himself playing.
"Growing up as a kid in the church, you always wanted to be the pedal-steel guy," he says. "Because you were, you know, the main rock star."
Randolph's soul, gospel and R&B twist has made him just that: a rock star, complete with a handful of Grammy nominations. He recently discussed the steel guitar and its influence on Lickety Split with NPR's David Greene.
On using the steel guitar
"It sits on four legs; it has pedals and knee levers that you sit down on a chair. And you play with both hands, both knees and both feet to create this beautiful sound. Most people are probably familiar with it — a lot of guys play it in country music. But for us, we play it as a sort of weeping, rhythmic, soulful [instrument]."
On the new song 'Born Again'
"It wasn't meant to be a gospel song — it was meant to be this love story, which is all the good news, anyway. After you've been on a thousand dates and you finally meet the right person, you feel born again and all excited. ... It's just so funny that a lot of the stuff that I do — it just comes out to sounding spiritual. ... ['Born Again' is] just this great story of finding the right person that allows you to be, or feel, spiritual.