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Steeling Souls

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.

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Marty Jones

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