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Steeling Souls

Can a brother get an amen?: Chuck and Phil Campbell (left), Katie Jackson, and Carlton and Darrick Campbell.

Delta blues legend Robert Johnson gained his guitar licks -- or so the story goes -- by cutting a deal with the Devil. The arrangement brought him skills and a mythical rep that will live for generations, but at a costly price: chops from hell for an afterlife in hell. The Campbell Brothers, on the other hand, have gained incendiary musical abilities under much better terms -- by dealing with the Lord above instead of Satan. And when they unleash their raging brand of American music, it's clear that the arrangement is paying off. Because the Campbells create a unique, steel-guitar-driven gospel music called "sacred steel" that's every bit as earth-shattering as Johnson's music was in the '30s. It's a soul-stirring blend of gospel and the power and volume of electric blues and rock, a sound as hot as brimstone that kicks holy butt. It's also shredding perceptions of country's signature instrument and the limitations of church music.

The Gospel According to the Campbells was most recently captured on recording on Sacred Steel Live, a compilation of sacred-steel artists released by the Arhoolie label. The Campbells' track, "God Is a Good God," opens the disc and makes it clear that the brotherly outfit is doing something different. Recorded in a House of God church in Crescent City, Florida, "God" rises to life to the sounds of a clapping crowd. Katie Jackson, the Campbells' featured gospel-belting vocalist, leans in with a moaned repeat of the song's title. Pedal-steel guitarist Chuck Campbell answers with a hushed reply from his buzz-toned instrument before the song roars heavenward. Over the next sweat-soaked eight minutes, the Campbells (Chuck, vocalist Jackson, lap-steel guitarist Darrick Campbell, guitarist Phil Campbell and his teenaged son, drummer Carlton Campbell) crank through a reckless boogie that sounds like an inspired Allman Brothers joined by Hound Dog Taylor and an I'm-going-for-all-of-it Mahalia Jackson.

What really lifts the song to uncharted territory is Chuck Campbell's playing. Campbell (sacred steel's equivalent of Eddie Van Halen and the form's first player to employ a pedal, not lap, steel guitar) combines bait-bucket blues riffs with nimble single-note runs and fuzzed-out explosions; the sound is then enhanced by an arsenal of guitar gadgets that includes wah-wah pedals, distortion devices and an E-bow. He blends these effects with an over-the-edge attack that peaks in squealing, quivering crescendos that rival Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival. When the one-chord celebration finally ends, you can almost picture Campbell on his knees, praying before his ax while it goes up in a flash of flaming lighter fluid. In fact, if he were to smash his instrument and toss the pieces to his screaming congregation, it wouldn't seem inappropriate. This is Jesus's punk rock. When the song ends, Katie Jackson offers an accurate one-word music review: "Hal-le-looo-yah!"

"The whole point of this music is to invoke the spirit," says Phil Campbell. "You play what you feel, and when you feel it, you put it forth on your guitar. And once the spirit comes in, that makes it fiery. We see the audience become uplifted and we raise our intensity, and it becomes a joyous spiral. Then all of a sudden, it's no longer a performance. It's a joyous sharing between people." Jackson sums it up in a more direct fashion. When word gets around the church that the Campbells will be performing, she says, "My goodness, man, the people go crazy. 'The Campbells are here? Oh, my God. We're gonna have a good time tonight.' Goodness gracious!"

Such excitement over sacred steel has been flourishing in obscurity for decades in branches of the House of God Church, a black Pentecostal movement founded in 1903 by evangelist M. L. Tate. Following Tate's death in 1930, a struggle among church leaders resulted in a court order that separated the church into three "dominions." Two of them, the Keith and the Jewel dominions, adopted the lap-steel guitar as the primary instrument of church music. (The guitar's initial popularity in America was fueled by a Hawaiian music craze in the early part of the century. Country-Western musicians lifted it to its current status.) House of God historians credit Willie Eason with bringing the steel to Keith dominion houses. Eason had been exposed to lap steel through his brother, who had taken steel lessons from a Hawaiian guitarist in Philadelphia in the '30s. The consummate showman, Eason earned his daily bread playing churches, street corners and on a handful of recordings, driving between gigs in ever-changing Cadillacs.

Over time, a number of other religious leaders in the Keith and Jewel dominions have aided Eason's steel-driving efforts. Members of the two churches have played lap-steel guitars for decades, passing steel licks from generation to generation. Jewel players developed a blues-based, three-chord style of playing, while Keith steelers crafted a more raw, spontaneous approach marked by incessant one-chord arrangements and free-flowing spontaneity. The Campbells' involvement in sacred steel began with their father, Charles, a bishop in the Keith dominion in Florida who established two House of God churches in upstate New York.

In the last fifteen years or so, a small number of Nashville's steel artists have been exposed to the Campbells and their peers during the House of God's annual conventions in Nashville. In 1984, during one of those conventions, the Campbells (who have been performing since the '70s) visited the shop of Bobbe Seymour, a Nashville steel player and steel-guitar vendor. Their initial appearance there, Seymour says, illuminated the differences between sacred-steel players and country players. "Their soul is talking when they're playing," says Seymour, who's been playing steel guitar for decades. Of course, there was a more obvious distinction as well. "None of the guys here had ever seen a black steel player," Seymour says. "They never realized there was such thing." On the Campbells' first visit, he asked them to return the following day so that other Nashville players could come and hear them. "I had some of the white hillbillies in here lying in wait for 'em," Seymour remembers, noting the skepticism of the Music City players. "All the good white players came to see the all the great black players. And the place just exploded -- everybody was jamming and grooving." He pauses for a moment. "It was one of the most wonderful, warm, soulful things I've ever seen. Two worlds came together, and everybody loved each other.

"It's been extremely positive, and everybody is extremely excited about this," he adds. Seymour's shop continues to host annual appearances by various House of God players, and his store features a "wall of fame" of photos and autographs of the best sacred-steel players. But there are still doubters in Nashville's ranks, he says. "Some of these white steel players come in here and see a black steel player on the wall, they say, 'Naw, that's fake.' And I say, 'No, it's not, and he plays better than you do.' I grind it right in their ear, man." But even these few prejudiced pickers, he notes, "might be terrified of these guys at the mall, but, boy, do they love them when they come in here with their picks on."

Sacred-steel artists might still be playing only in churches and music stores if not for the efforts of Robert L. Stone. A folklorist with the State of Florida, Stone discovered the genre five years ago after getting a tip from a south Florida music-store owner. "He called me and said, 'There are these black men coming into my store and buying steel guitars. They say they play them in church.'" Stone looked into it and received his first exposure to the sacred style from Aubrey Ghent, a Florida player. "Chills went through my body," Stone recalls. "It was like nothing I'd ever heard." For Stone, the display was the musical equivalent of reeling in a live coelacanth. "There's no other musical genre that has the steel guitar so out front," Stone says. "In the services, it's steel guitar, then the preacher, with the vocalist taking third place. And none of these players treat a pedal steel like the country guys. They went to a lot of trouble to develop their own way, and they've opened up a window to an instrument that's been stuck for years. It's new, and it's African-American to the bone."

Two years ago Stone produced a compilation of Florida steel acts (Sacred Steel) for Arhoolie. He followed that with studio recordings by the Campbells (Sacred Steel -- Volume 2) and Aubrey Ghent (Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus), and a collection from Sonny Treadway (Jesus Will Fix It). The Live collection is Arhoolie's fifth sacred-steel offering, and it's a stunning capture of the Campbells and their Keith peers live and in the church. The disc includes searing testimonials of faith, eerie calls to grace (Ted Beard's "The Train" pairs a sermon with train-whistle and steam-engine imitations from his lap steel), angelic ballads and a performance by the legendary Eason. There are also rip-roaring offertory tunes. "Those are 'celebration in giving' tunes," Chuck Campbell says. "The idea is to get the people up and moving. You get people humming and marching around and screaming, putting money on the table, and everybody's happy."

"The steel rules in our church, but the steel player is under a lot of pressure," Campbell adds. Part of the pressure comes from accompanying impromptu performances by church members, who are free to rise and sing during services. These special guests are not always musically blessed, and the steel player's job becomes one of covering for a singer's shortcomings and maintaining spiritual momentum. "A lot of the people can't hold a tune," Campbell chuckles, "so if you're the steel player and you can make that into something, that's when you're a great steel player. You finish it off to where you express what they were feeling inside."

For Campbell and his bandmates, what's going on inside is especially important. "If you're doing some bad stuff outside the church, it'll show in your playing," he points out. "Let's say you got into some sin, you're treating people wrong. The other players will get with you after the service, and they'll ask you, 'Whatcha doing, man?' And you'll say, 'I'm doing all right.' They'll tell you, 'I don't think so. Not the way you were playing. You got something going on, brother.'"

"There's a thinking side to what we do," Darrick Campbell points out. "'How am I treating my fellow man? How am I living? Am I doing the right things in life?' And there's also the expression of joy and sorrow. A lot of the songs speak to hope and the idea that whatever trouble you're having, you're going to come out of it. That's what makes our services so powerful -- people thinking about situations they've been delivered from and becoming thankful and joyous."

Following their recent exposure to a secular audience, the Campbells are now on their second tour of the United States, something which allows them to make contact with other musicians and music they've never heard before. "We've been playing these folk festivals," Chuck Campbell says, "and the music scene is so fantastic. Because the musicians are so down-to-earth, and everybody seems to be playing from their heart. I told my brothers, 'This is freakin' heaven.' We're glad we can share our music with other people, but we're extracting as we share." And so are the audience members who find themselves baptized in the sound of the Campbell's hybrid holy music, a sound that reaches across religious lines. "I had a friend who is a Muslim tell me he had to quit listening to our music," Chuck Campbell says. "He was worried he'd end up singing about Jesus in the mosque. People come up to us after a show all the time and they tell us the same thing: 'If they had played your music in my church, I never would have left.'"


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