Sacred steel is one of America’s ultimate outsider musics. Most who are aware of it first became so in 1997, when Arhoolie Records began issuing albums recorded by Florida folklorist Robert Stone. The music, made primarily on lap steel guitars, is the ecstatic sound of the Pentecostal House of God, but it took its first tentative steps away from gospel in 2001, when young House of God pedal steel whiz Robert Randolph joined with the North Mississippi Allstars and organist John Medeski to record The Word, a scorching fusion of secular and sacred. The next year Live at the Wetlands, the debut album of Randolph and his Family Band, had its greatest impact among jam-band devotees. Today, in addition to The Word and the Randolph catalog, eMusic carries albums by the Campbell Brothers (one with vocalist Kate Jackson and another with Medeski), one each by Glenn Lee and by the Lee Brothers, and a host of compilations. But with the exception of Randolph’s hybrid, sacred steel has still been heard by few outside the church.
Now, with the release of Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers, co-produced by Randolph and John McDermott and featuring steel players Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent and Chuck and Darick Campbell, the style gets its best shot yet at a wider audience. The album’s made up mostly of pop and rock songs with a spiritual bent (George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”) and spirituals with established crossover appeal (“Wade in the Water”), but also includes secular tunes (The Allman Brothers’ “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’”). The musicians — unfortunately, not a single track features all five — show off their funk, blues, country, rock, pop and jazz licks while staying true to their faith. “It’s always sorta been my vision to get everybody together and do this the right way, in a good studio, using songs non-church people could relate to,” Randolph says.
There’s a price for taking their music outside the House of God. After that first wave of Arhoolie albums, the Campbells began playing occasional festivals and venues (like coffeehouses) where alcohol wasn’t served. Although they still performed only religious material, they were banned from playing in the church. Randolph left the church by hitting the road to play his secular material, and never tried to return; Cooke, the patriarch of current musicians after playing services for 57 years, was dismissed for touring with Randolph. Ghent likewise was banished from his Florida church after doing sacred material at secular gigs, but was taken in at a Nashville House of God; because he’s now its pastor, he participates here only on songs that have a spiritual grounding. Most of them still worship in the House of God; they just don’t play services anymore, and they’re okay with the tradeout. “I enjoy exploring my music more,” Cooke explains. “I wanted to venture out.”
This music differs from their church music in more than one way. In 1999, I joined Ghent one Sunday at his church in Fort Pierce, Florida. He played nonstop through the entire service — improvising behind the pastor as she built her sermon to a climax, at which point she’d ease off as he either burned his improv to a crescendo or broke into a recognizable song the congregation began singing; then he laid back and she retook control. They passed the lead back and forth between music and preaching, amping it up and then softening it, congregation members speaking in tongues or shaking and writhing in the pews and aisles, for about three straight hours. Ghent played lines that emulated the tones and cadences of the preacher’s voice with a seemingly calm intensity that left his face and suit soaked in sweat. Even the best sacred steel albums, great as several of them are, can’t duplicate that — and similarly, The Slide Brothers can’t match those CDs.
In short, it’s likely to disappoint those who’ve heard any of the sacred albums. “Basically,” Ghent admits, “Here we simply play the songs. In church it’s different: We’re helping the preacher.” Still, there’s much here to love, especially if you’ve never heard any sacred steel. That’s apparent from the opening track, the Allmans’ “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” with Chuck Campbell’s sharp, knifing pedal steel and Darick’s fat lap steel swirling out sheets of sound while bro Phil lays down jagged funk and rock lines on guitar. Factor in Cooke’s equally driving vocals and the fiery outro jam and it’s a thrilling cut by any standards. Fronted by different guest vocalists, the Campbells likewise recast “My Sweet Lord,” Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” and the churning, traditional “Motherless Children,” while starting their instrumental “Wade in the Water” with shimmers and ending it with screams. Cooke brings deep, urgent empathy with both voice and lap steel to his revivals of slide guitar blues king Elmore James’s “The Sky Is Crying” and “It Hurts Me Too,” effectively obliterating distinctions between blues and gospel, and also contributes his original, secular/sacred “Help Me Make It Through.” Ghent, who I hadn’t remembered as much of a singer, proves me wrong on Mylon Lefevre’s “Sunday School Blues” and concludes the album with a bit of levity on “No Cheap Seats in Heaven.”
All five steel men are adamant that despite House of God’s rigorous insularity, the sound has a strong future both inside and outside the church. Cooke notes that there are more teenagers within the HoG taking up the instrument than ever before, while Randolph adds that Jack White, Kid Rock, Luther Dickinson and current and former Black Crowes Chris Robinson and Jeff Cease are now playing gospel-based lap steel styles; Chuck Campbell has a Finnish student. “It’s an ongoing thing that everyone wants to do, now that they’re getting to understand the story behind the music,” Randolph insists. I just hope they do it right.