Walking The Road With Randolph

No matter how many albums you buy this year, Robert Randolph & The Family Band’s new release, “We Walk This Road,” will be the one you remember long after 2010 fades into history.

Produced by and landing in stores June 21, We Walk This Road contains more of the magic that the producer uncorked when recording Raising Sand, the 2007 Alison Krauss and Robert Plant collaboration that landed on so many best-of lists for that year and resulted in five Grammy awards.

As he did with Plant and Kraus, Burnett worked with pedal steel guitarist in reviewing possible material for the new album. But We Walk This Road isn’t just a collection featuring covers and reinterpretations of old songs.

Instead, it’s almost as if Randolph and Burnett stripped the tunes down to their basic melodies and structures, then rebuilt them into something … different, making these songs sound as if they’re brand new while at the same time taking the listener on a journey through music’s past. Chances are We Walk This Road will be one of those discs you won’t remove from your CD player, an album where each repeated listening is as fresh and entertaining as the first time you played it.

The album also represents a somewhat personal journey for Randolph. As one of the premier guitarists to emerge in the 21st century, Randolph’s own musical past is different than other axemen. Having grown up in a household that only allowed gospel and Christian music, Randolph’s collaboration with Burnett served as an education of sorts for the guitarist, as he and the producer went back almost 100 years on an adventure exploring the roots of blues, while at the same time bringing these songs into the new millennium.

“T Bone knew, he had this vision of making a great record, and in the process of doing that, really sort of giving me his history and how he got into music and all the things he loved … and things he shared with other people “ Randolph told Pollstar while preparing for a gig in Tucson, Ariz.

“He just really wanted to introduce me to a lot of that music as well as me introducing him to where I come from, growing up in the church in my own sort of genre. It was a great, not only recording records or songs, it was a great knowledge I was a part of being with him.”

One of the more remarkable characteristics on a CD filled with spectacular moments is that We Walk This Road isn’t just a collection of old blues covers. With Burnett at the helm, Randolph and The Family Band also reworked a few more contemporary songs, like Bob Dylan’s “Shot Of Love,” John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama” and Prince’s “Walk Don’t Walk.” What’s amazing is that Team Randolph-Burnett has found common ground for all these songs, making them coexist side-by-side as a collection of tunes that seamlessly compliment one another. It’s almost as if the tracks were meant to appear together on an album.

In addition to introducing Randolph to the roots of the music he plays today, the making of We Walk This Road also helped the guitarist “connect the dots” between his contemporaries and the past as he listened to the same recordings that influenced a young Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page.

“Instantly I did see the connection,” Randolph said. “When you listen to that stuff, I could only use my own brain, use that and make my own music. I could see how Zeppelin, being from where they were from, and going, ‘Wait a second. We could do something totally different with this.’”

Perhaps one of the first indications that We Walk This Road was turning into something unique was the buzz the recording sessions created in the music community, resulting in other artists dropping by the Village recording studios in Los Angeles to see if Randolph and Burnett were actually capturing lighting in a bottle.

Robbie Robertson has a room up there at the Village,” Randolph said. “And the owner of the studio said, ‘Hey man. Let me tell you something. Robbie Robertson wants to meet you and hang out in the studio session, and that guy never wants to talk to anybody in the studio. He just keeps to himself. But he heard what you guys were doing and he wants to hang with you for the next couple of days.’

“This started to happen. Like Leon Russell meeting with T Bone about recording. Him and Elton John. Next thing you know they’re like, ‘We heard you’re making this record with Robert Randolph. Let us come in and check it out. Let’s sit in and see.’

“It became this sort of buzz around the studio, around L.A., around all of T Bone’s guys and a lot of people we know, like Ben Harper and Doyle Bramhall. I saw Eric Clapton while in the middle of making this thing and he said to me, ‘I hear you’re doing something really special with T Bone.’ The word started getting around.”

Some of those visitors did more than watch. Russell ended up playing piano on “Salvation” while another visitor helped shape the final version of “If I Had My Way.”

“We all got on the instruments, T Bone, me, two other guys from my church, the older guys on drums and bass and we just jammed,” Randolph recalled. “The next thing we knew we had found the groove.

“But then we started to write some lyrics and we still had ‘If I Had My Way’ in mind, and we really couldn’t figure it out until one day when Ben Harper came over and said, ‘Wait a second, man. I love this tune. I love the Blind Willie Johnson thing. Let me take a shot at it.’

“So he goes into the vocal booth and in five minutes just smokes those chords you hear today.”

The procession of musicians visiting the Village recording studios to watch the crafting of We Walk This Road didn’t end with Harper, Russell or even Robertson. By the time the recording sessions concluded, a veritable all-star collection of artists had come by, some wanting to experience the moment while others found inspiration to contribute even more flourishes to the effort.

“Leon Russell, Elton John sitting in there, Gregg Allman,” Randolph said. “Everybody going, ‘Wait a second. How about this? How about that?’ There was a bunch of that going on for like, four or five months, until we said we had to finish the record.”

Ah, yes, the finish. Just how do you wrap up a recording session when you still have an almost unlimited amount of material to draw from and seemingly endless procession of artists sitting in to add their own unique takes on a song or verse? Randolph explains.

“I think we were finished when T Bone said, ‘Listen, it’s already great. We’re done.’

“That’s when we were finished. The last song on the album was the last day of recording – “Salvation” with Leon Russell. He had come in there and said, ‘Do you mind if I just come in, sit down and watch you guys recording?’

“Next thing you know, T Bone is telling him, ‘If you’re sitting here, you may as well go get on the piano.’

Leon jumped up and goes to the room and sits there, and it turns out to be this special thing. T Bone said, ‘There’s a story. The record is finished. You, Leon Russell singing on the thing. This record is done.’”

“T Bone knew, he had this vision of making a great record …”

We Walk This Road is available now. Click here to purchase it on iTunes.

Robert Randolph & The Family Band appear on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” June 22 and will do an Amoeba in-store in Hollywood June 23. Randolph will also appear at Eric Clapton’s “Crossroads Guitar Festival” at Toyota Park outside Chicago in Bridgeview, Ill., June 26. Upcoming dates with The Family Band include Milwaukee’s Summerfest June 27; New York City’s Bowery Ballroom June 29 and the Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest July 7.

Click here for the Robert Randolph & The Family Band website.