Hot Licks for the Lord
Few sounds in music signify a particular tradition as vividly as the steel guitar does country. The instrument's eerie sustain, malleable pitch, and liquid attack practically paint a picture of the Grand Ole Opry (or the Hee Haw set, depending which side of the generation gap you landed on). But for the congregations of 200 or so African-American Holiness Pentecostal churches, the sound of steel means it's time to praise the Lord.
This obscure tradition began with a guitarist named Willie Eason, a member of the House of God, Keith Dominion, in Philadelphia. (The Keith Dominion is part of a Holiness movement started by an African-American woman, Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate, in 1903. Three years after her death in 1930, the church split into three denominations: the Keith Dominion, the McLeod Dominion, now called the Jewel, and the Lewis Dominion.) Eason, who taught himself to play the instrument a decade and a half after the first Hawaiian music fad swept the nation, first performed at a service in the late 1930s and was so well received that he took his Gospel Feast Party Band on a tour of other churches. By the 1950s, the steel guitar had become the lead voice in the rousing gospel music of most Keith and Jewel Dominion churches.
Eason borrowed elements from country and Hawaiian music, but he also incorporated gospel's call-and-response tradition, finding that the steel could uncannily imitate the human voice. Modern practitioners have greatly expanded on Eason's innovations, and perhaps the best of them is 41-year-old Chuck Campbell of Rochester, New York, who performs here this weekend with his family group, the Campbell Brothers. Campbell's mentor, a second-generation steel player named Calvin Cooke, has called him both the Eddie Van Halen and the B.B. King of gospel steel.
Yet it wasn't until 1997, when the Arhoolie label released the acclaimed compilation Sacred Steel, that the music was widely heard outside the churches. Although Keith and Jewel Dominion churches are located throughout the country, including several in the Chicago area, most are clustered in the southeast, and many are in Florida. That's where, in 1992, folklorist Robert Stone ran across a music-store owner who mentioned that he had a lot of black customers asking for steel-guitar supplies.
In 1995 Stone put together the compilation for the Florida state historical resources department, which issued it on cassette in an edition of 600. Stone, seeking a broader release, sent a copy to Smithsonian Folkways in D.C. and another to Arhoolie in California, and it was Arhoolie that bit. Since Sacred Steel came out, he's produced gospel-steel CDs for the label by Sonny Treadway, Aubrey Ghent, and the Campbell Brothers.
"We've been totally surprised at the response," says Chuck Campbell, who in the 70s introduced the 12-string pedal steel to the mix and later employed lots of effects, including the E-Bow, which allows him to stretch his notes out even longer. He and his brother Phillip, 36, who plays regular guitar and bass, have a reputation for pushing against tradition, and before Arhoolie approached them they were exploring more commercial sounds on their own time. "We were using synthesizers and samplers, aiming for a Kirk Franklin thing."
"[Arhoolie] focused us," says Phillip. "We were trying to do these contemporary things and they said, 'No, no, no. We want you to do what you play in church.'" Unlike Sacred Steel, which was compiled from field recordings, the Campbells' album, Pass Me Not, was cut in the controlled environment of a recording studio. But it took only three and a half hours--the length of an average service. With guest vocals by Katie Jackson, a gospel belter from Baltimore, some of the group's emotionally powerful work wouldn't sound out of place in a Chicago blues club. Still, the guitar playing is otherworldly: when Chuck and his 32-year-old brother, Darick, who plays the more traditional eight-string lap steel, duet on "End of My Journey," they sound like they're having an animated conversation, and you can almost make out the words. "The steel has been so prominent in our music because, as far as we know, as a lead instrument it has no equal in mimicking the voices and moans," says Chuck. "It's able to be a continuation of anything that someone else sings or does in service."
But in fact, the Campbells acknowledge, neither the record nor their secular performances, which they limit to about a dozen a year, can capture the real conversation that goes on at a Keith Dominion service. "A typical service is sort of an open-mike situation and anyone from the core congregation can sing any song in any key at any given moment," explains Phillip. "The sacred steel player has to have the skill to play in all keys and be able to play a wide variety of songs. They're all going to be sung differently, and skill level varies. Some people can really lay out a song and some people you'd rather not hear sing, but because of the spirit that's involved you can feel the emotion in either case."
"A few months ago somebody in our congregation broke out with [R. Kelly's hit] 'I Believe I Can Fly' and we had to pick it up and go with it," Chuck adds. "But we've found a similar reaction, a feeling of sharing, from secular audiences. It may not be in the tradition of the church or in a religious setting, but we realized that people have a lot of natural spirit and I think they can feel that from us."
The group, which is rounded out by Phillip's 14-year-old son, Carlton, on drums, opens for the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Friday night at 7. They'll also play a free show at 1 PM Friday at Jazz Record Mart.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Campbell Brothers photos by Kurt Bromwell.