Spirit Guides 

The transcendent sound of sacred steel guitar reaches a wider audience

The transcendent sound of sacred steel guitar reaches a wider audience

The three men were at Sound Check in East Nashville to take part in an informal jam session put together by Dan Tyack, a steel guitarist who has worked with Jean Shepard, Charlie Louvin, and Asleep at the Wheel. Tyack had flown in from Seattle the night before just to host the picking party, but the players around which he had organized the event hadn’t arrived yet. Finally, nearly four hours after Green had shown up and a good 60 minutes after he’d gone, in walked a half-dozen black guys in suits, four of them with steel guitars in tow. Church, they explained, had run much longer than they had expected and they just couldn’t get away.

For the Campbell Brothers, the quartet that comprised two-thirds of the tardy contingent, this had literally been the case. That morning, the Campbells had been the pit band for worship at the House of God, an African American Pentecostal denomination also known as the Church of the Living God. The Campbells, along with a couple dozen other steel players from around the U.S. and Canada, were in town for the church’s General Assembly, a week-long gathering that takes places each June at the denomination’s North Nashville headquarters.

Of course, most folks, including most African Americans, associate the steel guitar not with black gospel but with country music. Yet for more than six decades, the instrument has been an integral part of House of God worship, occupying much the same place that the piano and organ do in other churches. The sacred steel tradition has also produced a number of virtuoso players over the years, among them this afternoon’s special guests, Calvin Cooke, Robert Randolph, and Chuck and Darick Campbell. It was for a chance to pick with these men that country heavy hitters like Green, Franklin, and Bouton had whiled away the better part of their Sunday.

It was an unlikely scenario, a handful of white Nashville cats hanging around in a riverfront warehouse waiting to jam with a bunch of black pickers from churches in Detroit, New York, and New Jersey. But in much the same way as black and white musicians worked together at Stax and Muscle Shoals during the ’60s and ’70s, this casual summit afforded these men an opportunity to experience a unique musical communion. It also gave them a chance to get their rocks off: The funky vamps and snarling, dirty-toned runs they swapped on this afternoon smacked less of a Sunday-morning prayer meeting than a juke joint Saturday night. Randolph in particular was feeling his oats. Heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, the young lion summoned unearthly, rapid-fire leads from his instrument, and not just with his feet and fingers, but with his chin and tongue as well.

The keening whine of the steel guitar doubtless will always be linked to twangy records made in Nashville, but lately there’s been growing interest in sacred steel playing, an intuitive, deeply emotive style that bears little resemblance to the way country musicians approach the instrument. “Most country players learn by copying another person’s lick and incorporating it into their playing,” Tyack observes. “The sacred steel guys don’t copy licks note for note. Theirs is definitely ‘feel’ music; it’s all about emotion.”

“We don’t go by written music; it’s all improvisation,” explains Lonnie “Big Ben” Bennett, a steel guitarist with the House of God who grew up in Connecticut, where he honed his chops working behind chicken wire in country dives. “The most important thing about playing in church is not to think, and not thinking means playing by feel, playing from the heart.”

There’s more than just the way that sacred steel guitarists play that sets them apart from country pickers: Why they make music is different as well. First and foremost, Bennett and his peers play to glorify God and to incite the praises of God’s people. It is their job to “move the service,” to discern the Holy Spirit’s presence in worship and reflect it back to the congregation.

“I watch the people, and as they get to clapping I get a feel for where they’re at,” says Cooke, 56, a lap steel guitarist with a House of God church in Detroit. “If they’re getting intense and clapping hard, then I start feeling what they’re feeling. We don’t push them if they’re not there yet. With us, the spirit comes at different times. It can come through a praise service where people really get excited, or when the leader gets up and says, ‘I feel like preaching,’ and the whole church gets emotional and starts dancing. Another place is the altar call, when people come up for prayer. We just play and ask the spirit to come in.”

Indeed, to prepare themselves for worship, sacred steel players fast and pray; some even ask their ministers to anoint their hands with oil. “I lay my hands on my guitar and say a prayer,” says Randolph, a 23-year-old from Orange, N.J., who plays a custom-built 13-string pedal steel. “If I forget to pray, I find that my playing doesn’t have that connection to the spirit. When that happens, which isn’t often, I say, ‘Lord, consecrate my hands real fast. Give me the anointing so that I can have that connection.’”

The connection of which Randolph speaks was certainly evident when Cooke was at the steel during Saturday-night worship at the House of God’s General Assembly: You could literally witness the spirit inhabiting the praises of the 2,000 or so people who had gathered for services. “How many of you feel the spirit of God in this building right now?” roared the worship leader as the band launched into some fevered riffing and people started shouting, clapping, and stomping their feet. Several women shook tambourines and gourds they’d pulled from their purses. Others, both men and women, fell out and danced in the aisles; a few spoke in tongues.

No one voice, though, was more eloquent or stirring than that which emanated from Cooke’s steel guitar. Channeling the Holy Spirit at seemingly every turn, the retired autoworker answered the congregation’s cries of “Can you feel it?” with din-piercing notes that sounded as if they were issuing divinely ordained commands like “Feel it!” and “Come on, praise Him!” During those moments when the call-and-response subsided, Cooke’s fingers conjured flurries of whoops, hollers, and other wordless utterances as the house band simmered behind him, laying down a gutbucket groove reminiscent, appropriately enough, of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light.” By the time this opening portion of the service gave way to testimonials and prayer—a full 50 minutes into what ended up being a five-hour service—the spirit had warmed every nook and cranny of the crowded, sweaty worship hall.

Such inspiration was evident all weekend. The night before, Bennett—whose playing is more lyrical, more country-sounding, than Cooke’s declamatory blues style—tossed off musical phrases that mimicked entire lines of congregational hymns. On Sunday morning, Chuck Campbell coaxed notes of such clarity out of his guitar that it was hard not to mistake them for the human voice singing the words “Glory” and “Hallelujah.” Perhaps the flashiest picker of the lot, the 42-year-old New Yorker also made extensive use of a wah-wah pedal and searing single-string solos, the latter recalling everything from Prince’s pyrotechnics on “When Doves Fly” to Duane Allman’s slashing leads on “Statesboro Blues.” At other times, Campbell scaled entire octaves in a single note to produce cries uncannily like those sung by Al Green on “Tired of Being Alone.” Here again, though, the goal of all this carrying on was not to draw attention to the steel guitarist, but to stir up the congregation and give glory to God. “There’s no greater feeling,” says Campbell, “than getting the church to one accord, where everybody is screaming and saying, ‘I yield to the Lord.’”

The origins of sacred steel playing can be traced to the “Hawaiian” guitar craze that took Tin Pan Alley by storm after World War I. Boosted by mail-order and door-to-door sales, these resophonic, steel-bodied instruments eventually caught on with the rest of the nation as well, for a while selling at a faster clip than conventional electric guitars. Willie Eason, a native of Georgia who was living in Philadelphia, introduced the steel guitar to the House of God worship experience during the mid-’30s. Eschewing the then-popular Hawaiian sound that he’d heard his brother Troman playing at home, Eason worked more in the vein of the era’s bottleneck blues guitarists, musicians who sought to imitate African American vocal techniques. In his hands, the steel did more than just provide accompaniment for congregational hymns; it found a voice of its own, its “talking style” emitting melismatic cries and moans that expressed as wide a range of emotion as that conveyed by the most dynamic preacher or singer.

This affective component, such an important part of sacred steel playing, is in keeping with the theological tenets of the House of God, a Pentecostal tradition that affirms that all people, not just preachers and elders, can access the Holy Spirit directly. Mary Magdalena “Mother” Tate, a sidewalk evangelist who traveled throughout Tennessee during the late 19th century, founded the church in 1903. After her death in 1930, the group, which had previously been known as “The Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy,” split into three denominations or “dominions.”

Of the three, only the McLeod Dominion favors conventional church music. In worship services, the Jewell and Keith Dominions both employ steel players, as well as some combination of bass, guitar, drums, and keys. (The word “employ” is used loosely here: Virtually all musicians in these predominately working-class traditions have day jobs.) Steel guitarists pick with their right hand while sliding a steel cylinder or bar over the strings with their left to change or sustain the pitch of the notes they’re playing. Those from the Jewell Dominion such as Sonny Treadway work in the slower, jazzier vein of sacred steel pioneer Lorenzo Harrison; those of the Keith Dominion typically play in the “hot,” syncopated style patented by Eason. Some musicians, most of them from the old school, prefer the lap steel to the pedal steel; although it is a simpler instrument, it’s harder to control than the pedal steel and better enables them, they say, to abandon themselves to the pull of the Holy Spirit.

Sacred steel enjoyed something of a life outside the House of God during the late ’30s and ’40s, when Eason worked as a street musician, billing himself as “Little Willie and his Talking Guitar.” He also toured with a small band called the Gospel Feast Party and recorded a handful of 78s, two of them with the Soul Stirrers (pre-Sam Cooke), for the Aladdin and Regent labels. After the late ’40s, however, the instrument was heard only inside the churches of the Jewell and Keith Dominions until 1992, when Robert Stone, a folklorist working for the state of Florida (a sacred steel hotbed), got a call from a friend who played him snippets of the music over the telephone.

Stone knew a good thing when he heard it. After securing grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and other sources, he released a cassette that featured the playing of Eason and Treadway, as well as tracks from Glenn Lee, Henry Nelson, and recent Nashville transplant Aubrey Ghent. Arhoolie Records, the Bay-area label owned by noted collector and ethnomusicologist Chris Strachwitz, eventually reissued the compilation. Four more Stone-produced titles followed on Arhoolie, in turn prompting invitations for sanctified pickers to perform at festivals in the U.S. and abroad. Soon, what had started as a folklorist’s find had become something of a sacred steel renaissance.

Performing for secular audiences might be different from playing in church, but as Calvin Cooke, the Campbell Brothers, and others have found, their music stirs people’s souls in both worlds. “We bring our spirit with us wherever we play,” Chuck Campbell says. “We have people come up to us after concerts outside the church saying, ‘I felt God’s presence when you played, and I don’t even like gospel music.’

“Everybody’s got their problems,” he adds. “If we can make them forget their problems and feel like they’re not the only ones, then I think we’re doing our job.”

Campbell and his peers don’t, however, try to make House of God converts out of their mainstream audiences. “I spent three days with these people, all of whom have religion as the center of their life, and I wasn’t proselytized once,” marvels Dan Tyack, who traveled to a sacred steel convention in Orlando, Fla., this spring.

But working outside the House of God does more than expose the sacred steel tradition to the larger world. It also affords sanctified pickers a chance to perform music—be it country, rock, or blues—that wouldn’t be suitable for worship, even though the very same tunes and riffs often inform their work in church. The recent convention in Orlando provided one such opportunity. “It wasn’t like church,” Chuck Campbell explains. “There, everybody let loose. If you wanted to play R&B and rock riffs, you did. There was no one looking at you like you were from the devil.”

Campbell’s last remark might smack of overstatement to secular readers, but not to fellow sacred steel guitarist Lonnie Bennett. When asked if he’d slipped fragments of Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” into his repertoire during the House of God’s Friday-night worship, Bennett confessed that he’d also snuck bits of ZZ Top’s “La Grange” into the medley of “Rocky Top” and “I Saw the Light” that he played during the service’s offertory march. “As far as I’m concerned, music is music,” he explains, “but I didn’t play the whole song, because that would have offended people.”

Bennett, Campbell, and Cooke all cite rock and pop acts as influences; Cooke even namechecks such unlikely heroes as Yes and Elton John. But in general, sacred steel guitarists are far more affected by the music of their country counterparts. The slicing, quicksilver runs of Speedy West and Weldon Myrick are certainly writ large in Campbell’s playing. And Cooke talks about how much the styles of Jimmy Day (who worked with Ray Price and Willie Nelson) and Jerry Byrd (who appeared on numerous recordings by Red Foley and Ernest Tubb) have shaped his playing. Lloyd Green’s name comes up often in conversation as well. “Most of us listen to country and western all the time,” Cooke says. “Those guys don’t know it, but they helped create sacred steel, because we listened at them so much.”

Bennett has done more than just listen to country steel players—he’s been one himself, despite having to face the ugly specter of racism on several occasions. “I’d get my country jobs over the phone,” he explains, alluding to the fact that bandleaders couldn’t tell from his voice that he was African American. “We played a lot of those redneck clubs, and I would always get challenged. Some guy would see me setting up my guitar and say, ‘Excuse me, boy, what are you doing with that thing?’ When I’d tell them that it was mine, their jaws dropped.

“Connecticut also had this steel guitar club. You had to audition to join, and I had made up my mind that I was going to join. My dad was like, ‘Yeah right.’ I had my first Sho-Bud [a model designed by country steel trailblazers Shot Jackson and Buddy Emmons]. It was a charcoal double-neck. I played ‘Sweet Georgia Brown,’ and the whole place went quiet. But the pause went on a little too long—long enough to make me feel uncomfortable. Then the bass player, this totally country guy in overalls, said, ‘Damn, this nigger can play.’ I almost shook in my boots, but after that I got more comfortable in my ability.”

Although, like Bennett, he doesn’t abide racism of any stripe, Campbell agrees that performing outside the church has improved his playing as well. “It helped me broaden my musical skills and play better, because I wanted people to feel our music,” he says. “Most black people know about church, and they’re into it. But it’s a different audience when we play festivals and concerts. We want to connect with those people too.”

Lately, between Arhoolie’s recent releases and the growing number of appearances by sacred steel players at music festivals and concert halls, more of the connections to which Campbell aspires are being forged. And with his musical cameo in the forthcoming movie Kingdom Come (starring Whoopi Goldberg, LL Cool J, Vivica Fox, Toni Braxton, Jada Pinkett Smith, and others), sacred steel stands to gain wider exposure than ever before. This would certainly befit the 60-some-year-old tradition, an enduring part of the American musical vernacular that deserves its rightful place alongside country steel guitar playing. More importantly, such widespread attention affirms sacred steel’s power to unite people of disparate faiths and races—people bound together by a common desire, as Mahalia Jackson used to sing, to move on up a little higher.


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