If Rock ‘n Roll is the Devil’s music then Old Nick owes a lot to the church. The history of American popular music is full of stars who started off in church and then decided to serve the Lord and Mammon (or tried to). A very recent example is the Slide Brothers.
The Sacred Steel tradition emerged in the 1930s when the Eason brothers, Willie and Troman, started playing lap steel guitar in services of the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Some versions of the story suggest that Willie took up lap steel because he and/or his congregation couldn’t afford an electric organ.
Willie recorded in the 40s and 50s, but it is only recently that this style crossed over into the world of commercial secular music with Robert Randolph as the trail blazer.
Randolph plays on one or two cuts here, but mostly the album is about players of an earlier generation, the guys that he grew up listening to. In particular there is Aubrey Ghent who is the nephew of Willie Eason and thus a link back to the origins of this genre as well as being one of its greatest players.
This album doesn’t so much walk a line between secular and gospel music as repeatedly cross that line in both directions. The holy and the profane are both here, and these devoutly Christian men bring the house down no matter which side they incline to on any particular track.
The playing is top notch through out, and the sound of the steel guitars (some lap steel, some the trickier pedal steel) is notable for it’s sustain, overdriven tone and vocal quality. One of the few lap steelers in Jo’burg, Richard Bruyns, once put it to me that steel guitar is the instrument that sounds most like the human voice, and listening to these guys you want to believe that. In the liner notes Chuck Cambell explains that “…Sacred Steel… is always about mimicking the voices heard in the church…. playing the steel so that you can almost hear the words as if they were sung by a voice.”
The album opens with Chuck and Darick Campbell’s steel guitars sounding off against each other before they burst into “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin'” by the distinctly worldly, not to mention hell raising Allman Brothers Band.
They also take on a blues classic in Elmore James’s “The Sky Is Crying” with a fabulous solo (from either Robert Randolph or Chuck Campbell, the liner notes tell us who played on each track but not who gets the solos). Indeed this record reminds me of why (like so many white boys) I fell in love with the blues years ago (and why I don’t like the soulless guitar wanking that passes for the blues these days).
This is a fine record made by players who combine fire with accuracy and conviction with technique. It’s enough to make an atheist want to pretend to be a believer so that he can sneak into the church and catch the groove.