Sacred steel

For a long time, they were discouraged from playing (or even listening to) music, outside their church’s walls. But now, the Campbell Brothers just take their church — and its somewhat unusual musical traditions — wherever they go.

“The lap-steel guitar has always been a prominent instrument in the praise and worship services of our church,” says guitarist Chuck Campbell. These days, the House Of God Church Keith Dominion in Rochester, N.Y., also rocks out with pedal-steel guitar, electric guitar and drums. The guitar tradition started at the church in the late 1930s, with a musician/congregation member named Willie Eason, Campbell explains. “[The tradition has] evolved, and we happen to be the third or fourth generation of that.”

Darick, the youngest Campbell brother, plays lap-steel guitar. Phillip Campbell plays electric guitar, and his 14-year-old son, Carlton, mans the drum kit. Chuck started playing acoustic guitar at age 11, moved on to the lap-steel, and finally settled on the pedal-steel. He has since become one of the foremost practitioners of that complicated system of strings, pedals and levers. “When you see the Campbell Brothers perform, you’re actually seeing the evolution of the instrument,” says Phillip. “My brother Darick plays a more traditional style, which is more associated with blues and slide, whereas Chuck plays more of an upbeat, contemporary-rock style.”

Chuck Campbell — referred to as “the Jimi Hendrix and Django Reinhardt of the steel guitar” by Real Blues magazine — has forged his own pedal-steel style. “[Playing] secular music was forbidden [in our home],” he emphasizes. “So for us, blues was what we’d see of B.B. King on television. We’d see some things, like Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones — the top bands that they’d show on television — but we came up pretty sheltered. … I missed the popular jazz and pop music, and the influences for me actually came from the [lap-steel I heard in] church. As technology moved on, I found myself using the pedal-steel guitar. … I ended up using electronics, too. Some people feel [my music] bears a resemblance to Hendrix or Clapton or something of that nature, but it wasn’t intentional. I didn’t have them as role models or mentors. My mentors came from in the church, and basically, my style was just an offshoot of trying to enhance or build on the styles that were there.”

According to Phillip Campbell, the “sacred-steel” style uses the lap-steel and pedal-steel to emulate the voices, moans and cries often heard in Pentecostal church services. “There are certain things that every sacred-steel player has to have in his repertoire, as far as being able to play a service,” he says. “But then there are innovations within that. And that’s where the stylistic differences come about, as far as how you actually approach the instrument and make those things happen.”

The phrase “sacred steel” was coined by gospel label Arhoolie Records, when they began to document the music. “I guess there’s a bit of a catchiness to it,” says Phillip, “but it was a way of saying that, yes, these are steel guitars, but they’re not played in any way that would be associated with the normal steel guitar, as you see it in country music or Hawaiian music or whatever.”

“I think [sacred steel] is a close cousin to blues,” offers Chuck. “We’ve been doing this for two years now outside of the church, and we’ve been getting an education on … Elmore James, Robert Johnson, all these different blues guys. … It seems to be hitting people as a close cousin to those type of genres.”

To augment the cries of his pedal-steel guitar, Chuck uses such technical accoutrements as a wah-wah pedal and an e-bow. “And I overdrive an amp,” he notes. “Those things are used to help me further mimic the voices in church. That’s the intent of the effects.”

The group’s CD, Sacred Steel Live (Arhoolie, 1999), finds Chuck emulating vocalist Denise Brown on “The Storm Is Passing Over.” On “God Is A Good God,” his praise grows raucous, bringing to mind Stevie Ray Vaughan or Albert Lee. And “Celebration In Giving” is kind of a gospel version of Z.Z. Top’s “LaGrange.” (Campbell’s wailing would probably make Z.Z. Top guitar-slinger Billy Gibbons smile.)

“In actuality,” Chuck continues, “[contemporary gospel performers] Andrae Crouch and Edwin Hawkins are the ones that really made me go to the pedal-steel. With the lap-steel, you couldn’t do the modern chords that they use. … I started working with the pedals because I could accompany choirs on different church songs.” Vocalists Katie Jackson and Denise Brown accompany the Campbell Brothers. “Katie was one of the well-known giants of gospel singing in our church, still is,” he explains. “Denise Brown, who is our cousin, has been a singer for some time as well. She has a more contemporary, smooth sound, whereas Katie is a more powerful, gospel kind of a singer. That sets up an interesting contrast.”

The Campbell Brothers have recently performed at the Hollywood Bowl, the Strawberry Music Festival (in Yosemite National Park), and at jazz festivals across Europe. But whatever the venue, they aim to make a concert feel like church. “The attempt is to bring that kind of spirit to the performance, and in many cases, we have been able to achieve that,” Phillip says. “At a number of places, they have said it was like having church — which to us is the ultimate compliment. The music is designed to bring those kinds of spiritual emotions, and evoke the kind of participation that you get in a church service.”

Phillip Campbell admits that their music gets jazzy sometimes. “It can swing,” he reports. “The CDs are more traditional church music, because that’s what Arhoolie preferred — and rightfully so — but the sacred steel really does have a lot of fatness to it. From a stylistic standpoint, it does bridge jazz, blues, rock, country, all those kinds of sounds. A song such as ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ can be played so many different ways that it just depends on what direction the player wants to take the song in.”

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