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Crying Holy

Katie Jackson and the Campbell Brothers Sing the Praises of Sacred-Steel Gospel

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 5/13/1998

This past Valentine's Day weekend the North American Folk Alliance held its annual conference in Memphis, Tenn. When you get 1,500 folkies together in a hotel ballroom, you get a lot more beards, knapsacks, and peasant skirts than you would find at a convention of, say, pharmaceutical salespeople, but the conversation contains the same mix of industry gossip and catching up with old friends.

And so it was at the Folk Alliance's annual awards luncheon when a black gospel group set up on the ballroom stage. The talking subsided only a little when the band began to play; the folkies in the crowd had heard lots of gospel acts but hadn't seen many of their friends in 12 months. But all of a sudden an eerie note arose from the bandstand, starting low and guttural and sliding up into a quivering higher range, sounding like a human wail but with a sharper, metallic edge, and it cut through the chatter like a knife. Hundreds of heads snapped around with the same thought: What the hell was that?"

It was a pedal-steel guitar, the ultimate country-music instrument, wrenched out of its usual context and turned into the lead instrument in an old-fashioned, testifying gospel group. The band was called the Campbell Brothers, and it was playing for only the third time outside of a church. Chuck Campbell sat behind his tabletop guitar, working the pedals with his feet and the levers with his knees, sliding the silver cylindrical bar in his left hand across the 12 strings to make them shout and wail. A few feet away sat his brother Darick Campbell behind an eight-string lap steel guitar, adding his own slippery, squealing notes to the mix.

It was a sound like no other, for it took traditional gospel and put a bluesy slide guitar with a country twang out front, giving it the melismatic, improvisatory freedom of a church-choir soloist. It was as if Junior Brown were playing instrumental versions of the Mahalia Jackson songbook. And as if to prove just this point, the Campbell Brothers brought along Katie Jackson (no relation to Mahalia), whose powerhouse voice jumped around the octaves with dizzying dexterity and gave Chuck Campbell something to chase and overtake.

They call this sound sacred steel, and it has existed inside of the House of God Church, an African-American Pentecostal movement, since the 1930s. Only recently, though, have people outside of the church become aware of it, and that awareness is due largely to Robert Stone, once a folklorist for the now-defunct Bureau of Florida Folklife. Stone stumbled across this music in his home state and eventually discovered a whole network stretched out across the United States. Last year he produced four albums of this music, all released on the venerable roots-music label Arhoolie Records.

The first was an overview, Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida. Then two of that package's soloists were given albums: Sonny Treadway (Jesus Will Fix It) and Aubrey Ghent (Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus). Those three discs are excellent, but the jewel of the series is Pass Me Not by the Campbell Brothers, featuring Katie Jackson. The Campbell Brothers are from Rochester, N. Y., and Jackson is from right here in Baltimore.

"The first time I heard that sacred steel," she remembers, "was in Nashville for a House of God Assembly, and I had never heard an instrument like that. That Hawaiian guitar gives the service that extra pick up it needs. I know a lot of country singers sing with it but not like sacred-steel players, who have the Holy Ghost in them."

Baltimore doesn't have any home-based sacred-steel bands, but it does have the genre's leading singer; Jackson will join the Campbell Brothers at the Kennedy Center American Music Heritage Festival on May 25. Jackson also sings with a more conventional gospel group at Baltimore's Open Door Bible Way Church on May 15.

On the Campbell Brothers album, the old hymn "Walk With Me, Lord" begins with a bluesy Chicago stomp right off a Muddy Waters record. Phil Campbell (Chuck and Darick's brother) and Chuck Flenory kick the song off with a regular bass-and-guitar figure before Chuck Campbell comes in with a slicing, slashing pedal-steel solo. Jackson enters soon after with a gritty, Koko Taylor—like growl, asking the Lord to accompany her down the path of life. Chuck follows with another wild, octave-leaping solo, then Darick jumps in with a lap-steel solo that finds him running up and down the same string roller-coaster style.

"Mary, Don't You Weep" begins at a more deliberate tempo, with Jackson and Chuck Campbell simmering the pot by trading low, short, moaning phrases back and forth. This give and take slowly but surely escalates until Jackson is wailing out exclamations of praise and Chuck is matching her shout for shout with the greased, giddy phrasing of his pedal steel.

"Oh, my goodness," Jackson exclaims, "when I'm singing with the sacred steel, my voice reaches a certain peak it never reached when I was singing with organ and piano. I'll practice a song at one key and at one tempo, but when you get up there with the sacred steel, you start to feel it and the higher, faster notes just come out. And that steel guitar is so close to my voice that whatever I sing, they can play it too."

"When I play with Katie," Chuck Campbell says, "it's like a vocal duet. You try to make the strings sound like a voice, and you hear everything from a yell to a scream to a moan. You run into a lot of gospel singers who can have fun in church, but they haven't perfected their skills so they can hit particular notes. Katie has great skills and she makes me sound good, because she sets the stage almost like a point guard giving you the basketball in the right place for a slam dunk."

Back in the 1930s there was such a Hawaiian-guitar craze in the United States that electric steel guitars outsold conventional electric guitars for several years. One of the musicians who got caught up in the excitement was Willie Eason, who began to play a lap-steel electric guitar in his Philadelphia House of God church. Though he retained elements of the Hawaiian and hillbilly styles, he pretty much invented a whole new one. He imitated the traditional gospel piano by strumming rhythmic chords, and he imitated gospel singers by sliding up and down one string to mimic their note-blurring wails.

Eason not only appeared on some classic mid-40s 78s as the lead singer for the Soul Stirrers and half of the Gospel Trumpeters duo--he also cut half a dozen sides himself. Eason passed on his tricks to his brother-in-law, Henry Nelson, who passed them along in turn to his son, Aubrey Ghent. Eason, Nelson, Ghent, Glenn R. Lee, and Sonny Treadway are all represented on the Sacred Steel CD.

Meanwhile the steel guitar became a permanent fixture in Nashville, where its weeping tone made it invaluable in honky-tonk laments. Country players expanded the instrument's versatility by adding pedals and levers that allowed shifts in key and opened up a much broader palette of notes.

Chuck Campbell was one of the first to adapt the pedal steel to the sacred-steel tradition, and he mastered it so well that he could fill the hymns with vocallike moans and screams, train sound effects, bluesy grooves, clean-as-country melodies, and Hendrix-like bursts of noisy invention.

"I was probably the one who got the pedal steel most accepted," Chuck acknowledges. "Before I started playing, some other players had dabbled in it, but you couldn't play country-western in our church, so it was a problem of, How do you adapt the instrument to our music? What got me accepted was using the pedals to play all those modern chords and piano voicings that gospel composers like Andrae Crouch and Edwin Hawkins use. Now everyone in our church wants to play pedal steel."

Now that Arhoolie has released the four sacred-steel CDs, Katie Jackson and the Campbell Brothers are playing for secular audiences for the first time and sending them into a frenzy, just as they did at the Folk Alliance in Memphis.

"What we do in a theater is the same thing we do in church," Jackson says. "Some people may not like it, but that's what we are, a gospel group. In Boulder, we played in a small theater, and people were so happy they didn't know what to do. A woman told me later that most of those people never go to church, but they loved the music. That let me know that I'll never reach these people unless we play outside the church. And there's something about that sacred steel that gives you an overall warm feeling, and when you feel it when you're singing, other folks can feel it too."

"We had always wanted to record," Chuck says, "but we were trying to use synthesizers and drum machines to be up with the times. When Robert Stone and Arhoolie came in and said, 'What you're doing in church is the greatest thing in the world,' we were both surprised and glad. We had loved what we did in church, but we didn't know anybody else would feel the same way."

Katie Jackson joins the Campbell Brothers at the Kennedy Center American Music Heritage Festival, which will be held May 25 from noon to 7 p.m.; call (800) 444-1324 for information. Jackson performs at Baltimore's Open Door Bible Way Church at 7:30 p.m. May 15; call (410) 233-6202 for information.

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