It's not a tailgate without the music. Few football notions are more unassailable than that. Food is important. Friends are critical. Football is helpful, but let's be honest, we in the South have a long tradition of turning sacred rituals into an excuse to throw a party. So the pigskin is useful though not obligatory. But again, it ain't a party without the music.
If there's anything that Southerners take as seriously as their football, it's their music. Blues, jazz, bluegrass, gospel, rock and roll. They all sprang from the South, and by the way you're welcome America. We did it because it's hot down here and until recently there wasn't a lot to do other than play, sing, or listen. I guess we could have watched the Braves, but let's face it, they sucked out loud until well after the advent of cable television. So music it was. Or football. Or both mixed with bourbon.
Tailgate music is a very personal thing, to be sure. Some people make their own mixes. Some people tweak the playlist depending on the opponent. Some people simply will not enter the stadium until James Brown's "Dooley's Junkyard 'Dawgs" is played while they eat a plate of pasta salad while standing three steps to the left of their old pledge brother Roscoe.
So, bottom line, when ESPN linked arms with the Southeastern Conference to start a television network whose bread will be buttered by football coverage, and decided that said coverage would be anchored by a show that goes onsite each week to become a part of the tailgate atmosphere, they had some big musical shoes to fill. A region steeped in Aretha, Ray Charles, Elvis, Otis Redding, the Godfather of Soul, Duane Allman, and Skynyrd was going to truly and righteously loathe a formulaic pop country song from a sawed-off doofus in a puka shell necklace. And if it didn't react in this manner, well, I'd be ashamed of it but I'd still call it home.
Fortunately, I don't have to engage in that kind of personal confrontation. Enter Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Robert's not a southerner. He's actually a New Jersey guy, and huge Knicks fan (some would say the voice of the Knicks). But he's got some Alabamian in him (an uncle went to school in Tuscaloosa), and he made his name as a musician playing the "SEC circuit", clubs in Oxford, Athens, Tuscaloosa, and Auburn where his brand of foot stomping pedal steel guitar anchored gigs that were part rock show and part tent revival. A guitar picking, organ crunching, vocal shrieking, floor rocking good time that everyone should really take in at least once, just to say you've seen it and it is as advertised.
But if you've never heard of Randolph or his high-spirited band of party-vangelists, you're not alone. Rolling Stone labeled Randolph one of their 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, slotting him at #97 (right behind AC/DC's Angus Young). He's had some commercial success, several really well-received late night TV appearances (FYI, Sanders and Ramsey are flanking Randolph in this Letterman video), and a regular gig with his beloved Knicks. But make no mistake, this is no "hey, Big & Rich are really hot right now and a lot of our viewers are country fans" arranged marriage. The SEC Network isn't benefitting from The Family Band's millions of adoring fans, because music consumers are sadly imperceptive to genius in their midst. However many records Robert Randolph and the Family Band have sold, they should have sold a helluva lot more.
ESPN tabbed Robert and his longtime musical collaborators, Nashville based writer/musician/producers Shannon Sanders and Drew Ramsey, to provide the theme music for the network's flagship tailgate show. They responded by taking a Randolph tune featuring brass virtuoso Trombone Shorty that's been a hit in concert (though not so much as a single) and reworking it with an SEC sensibility. I talked to Randolph, Sanders, and Ramsey recently about the theme song, football, and little more. My sense is that they couldn't be any more thrilled to be a part of the SEC Network.
MD: How did you guys get involved with this project?
Robert Randolph: I was contacted I think back in February, somebody from the network heard our song and apparently really liked the vibe of it, and thought it had the spirit of the SEC. It's just celebratory, and this is about celebrating the schools. Because they are rich in tradition, not just in sports but academics. Music.
MD: As a fan of the band I know the song already. So what's different about this song?
Shannon Sanders: We wanted to make sure that it was accurate to what each school's culture was. Everybody in this league has their own thing, you know? Missouri has M-I-Z-Z-O-U! But they're very specific about how you do the "M-I-Z" on one side of the stadium and "Z-O-U" on the other. That's just how Missouri does their chant. Things like that we wanted to make sure we captured. So each fan base could see themselves in it and be proud of it.
Randolph: And I was already familiar with some of the stuff with some of my buddies who are fans of other schools and their trash-talking, and just playing and traveling around. We've toured for years in all of these towns. Athens. Columbia. Knoxville. We've kind of played the whole SEC and that's how we got started. Coming from the northeast right down to the South. I think the first school we played was Ole Miss. Then we played Tuscaloosa. And we just kind of went around and played all these towns for like 5 years. At this point I think I've probably been to two too many frat parties (laughing).
MD: Two too many, or one too few?
Randolph: Oh no, definitely two too many at this point.
Drew Ramsey: If I could show you some of the emails that we got from ESPN, the chorus they said "We love that. Don't change that." And the chanty section of it with the "right nows" and all that, they didn't want to change any of it. A lot of times you get into these commercial situations where they want to change everything and micromanage it. So it was refreshing as a writer to hear that "this is universal, this will work." Now obviously we just needed to get all 14 teams in there and get some of the schools mottos and references, it just had to be something other than just the name.
What was sort of funny was we had to next figure out which order we would put them in, because you know as soon as we'd start with one team that would make somebody else mad. "Why did you start with Alabama?!?!?." Well, uh, because it's alphabetical. But as a writer and producer it was an interesting challenge.
Randolph: Now when I play it live I gotta try not to sing these lyrics.
MD: What's the inspiration for the song "Take the Party" itself?
Ramsey: We've really worked with Robert for years, and we've stumbled on a sound that's been used by the NFL, NBA, and we thought "what can we write that might just 'fit'?" And this idea that we take the party wherever we go, we were just thinking about how now with an iPhone and a pony keg and internet radio we can just take the party wherever we go. And we were also thinking about Robert's band, and how whatever town we're in we bring the party with us. That was the initial kind of spark.
MD: What was your reaction when you found out the SEC Network and ESPN wanted to use it?
Ramsey: So excited. I went to the University of Tennessee, graduated from there. I'm a hardcore Vol fan. So for me as a fan it's like "we're actually going to get to be on the SEC Network when it launches? It's like a dream come true. I grew up going to see the Vols, with 100,000+ people in that stadium. So we grew up with most of the schools and most of their sayings, so that really helped with the writing.
Sanders: Yeah I'm a Vols fan. All day. I bleed orange. I grew up in Nashville then did my last year in high school in Knoxville.
MD: Are there any plans to change "Take The Party" as the season goes on based on how the season plays out, to tweak things?
Ramsey: We've let ESPN know that anything like that they want to do we're their go-to guys. And it's been a real blessing to have kind of stumbled into this sound. It's sort of funny because we really wrote the song for Robert's record (2013's Lickety Split). We didn't really anticipate it being used like this, but we've told them that anything else you want to do with, we want to be involved. It's just exciting.
MD: Drew do you have a particular favorite Vol of all time?
Ramsey: For me it's Condredge Holloway. I'm an older guy. And I wasn't in school when he was playing, but just his spirit man. He was kind of a guy from the country. As a kid going to the games with my father and seeing Condredge play, that was big. And now he's still on the staff. I don't know if you've seen the documentary that Kenny Chesney produced on him, but he was one of, if not the, first black quarterbacks in the SEC. And there's a lot of memories wrapped up in watching him play.
But then there's also Fuad Reveiz and Reggie White. And a lot of that, and this is nothing against Peyton Manning for example because he's got great character too, but a lot of it was what those guys did and how important they were off the field to the Knoxville community.
MD: Any other plans to do anything else with the SEC Network?
Randolph: Yeah. I'm just here whenever, man. It's funny because we actually wrote this song that's going to be on our new record called "Hail Mary." But it really wasn't even met for football. It's kind of about a guy who's run out of excuses after being caught by his girlfriend and he's like "Oh hell, I've run out of excuses, let's throw up the Hail Mary and see if it works." But some people at the network actually really liked that song and I mean it's named "Hail Mary." It kind of fits.
But I'm here. I'm a sports fanatic. I've done stuff for the NBA, NFL, and MLB. And I'm here for the SEC Network, too.
MD: Robert I understand Shannon and Drew are Vol fans, do you have an SEC allegiance?
Randolph (leaning in conspiratorially before seizing the tape recorder: ROLL TIDE!!! ROLL DAMN TIDE!!!
MD: And there you go.