''Sacred steel'' music, played on steel guitars, began in House of God churches, but the musicians are finding a broader audience for their gifts.
By TONY GREEN
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2002
ST. PETERSBURG -- Some people look outside themselves for evidence of God's favor. Sitting in his Pinellas Point living room, surrounded by musical mementos, singing and coaxing heartfelt gospel sounds from his lap steel guitar, Willie Eason shows that the Almighty's blessings can exist deep within.
Halfway through his song I Never Heard a Man Speak Like This Man Before, he pauses to tell about the time a car fell on him, requiring surgeons to put a metal plate in his head. Then he tells the story of how, as a boy, he was playing in an elevator shaft when the elevator came down and crushed half his body, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. The doctors told him he would never walk or father children.
Now 81, he's still walking. And he has scores of kids. There are his biological offspring, 15 by his first wife and his current wife, Jeannette. Then there are the scores of lap and pedal steel musicians playing in House of God churches throughout the country.
To the part of the world that knows about it, Eason's brand of music is called "sacred steel" -- deep gospel played on a lap or pedal steel guitar. To Willie Eason, the father of the style, it's both his gift to the world and his expression of his personal blessings.
"People tell me all the time, 'All you been through, you are one lucky man,' " he said. "If you want to call God lucky, well go on ahead. I know who to thank."
Most people associate church music with the piano or organ. The Pentecostal House of God denomination bases its worship music around the steel guitar -- either the smaller, more portable lap steel or the larger, more complex pedal steel. In this tradition, the musician plays the same role as other instruments, driving the service, underpinning the minister and, when necessary, bringing the spiritual energy to a climax.
Though steel guitar is most often associated with country or Hawaiian music, the instrument is uniquely suited to gospel. A reasonably accomplished player can use it to simulate the sound of a heart-wrenching vocal. A good one, like transplanted Floridian Aubrey Ghent (currently a Nashville resident), can use it to simulate a whole choir. Listen to Praise Music on the Arhoolie label's Sacred Steel compilation CD.
Others, like 23-year-old New Jersey resident Robert Randolph, set to play Saturday at Skipper's Smokehouse, have a style that combines the best of Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers.
"My style is different from a lot of other guys'," Randolph said. "I hadn't heard much music outside of the church, until one day someone gave me a tape of Stevie Ray Vaughan. So I figured it would be cool to get my pedal steel to sound like that."
Randolph's rock-friendly style and high-energy stage show have made him the rage in New York musical circles. His Robert Randolph and the Family Band Live at the Wetlands was recorded live at the cutting-edge New York venue. He has been profiled in the New York Times and recorded with tres cool musicians such as the Dirty Dozen, jazz-funk keyboardist John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin and Wood) and the North Mississippi Allstars (on the critically acclaimed album The Word).
But, as Randolph and other players are quick to point out, the music's true function is to bring listeners closer to the Holy Spirit, not merely to entertain. That's why it's impossible to understand the music without knowledge of the church that spawned it.
Members and nonmembers refer to the church as the House of God. Its full name, though, is the House of God Which Is the Church of the Living God the Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy. Evangelist Mother Mary Magdalena Lewis-Tate founded it in 1903. When she died in 1930, the church split into three divisions or dominions: the Keith, Jewell and Lewis dominions. The majority of the steel players are in the Keith and Jewell dominions. (Lewis Dominion churches use the piano in their services.)
The church has spread west to Washington state and north to Pennsylvania, but the tradition is strongest in the South, particularly South Carolina, Georgia and especially Florida, said Gainesville folklorist Bob Stone. There are more than 50 House of God churches in Florida.
The Tampa Bay area has its share of churches and musicians, particularly at the House of God on Fairfield Avenue in St. Petersburg and the House of God on 29th Street in Tampa. Sarasota is home not only to the church's national president of musicians, Elder Kenneth Ellis, but to the national head of the Keith Dominion, Bishop James C. Elliott. His son, James, plays at Sarasota's Mango Avenue House of God.
South Florida is another hotbed of the tradition, as is Ocala. Lewis-Tate established the first Florida House of God there in 1914, which was run by Keith Dominion Bishop Willie L. Nelson. His son, Ocala's Henry Nelson, is credited with the church's strong presence in Florida.
Nelson, who died last year, was also a sacred steel player, one of the most important figures in the development of the sacred steel tradition. After all, he learned from Willie Eason.
Everyone in the field agrees that Eason is the most influential sacred steel player, living or dead. Steel virtuoso Chuck Campbell, one of the tradition's most accomplished players, states it simply: "Willie is everybody's father."
Much of the credit for Eason's proficiency goes to his older brother, Troman, who learned Hawaiian guitar in the mid-1930s while they were living in Philadelphia. Eason's use of Hawaiian guitar techniques such as artificial harmonics (bell-like upper-register chimes) is evidence of his close study of Troman's playing. The other part of his style comes from his keen ability to modify Troman's style to the soulful requirements of the African-American church. His uncanny ability to mimic gospel vocalese (often answering back his sung phrases) astounded listeners in the church and on the Philadelphia street corners, where he often would perform. Eventually he started to travel with the Gospel Feast Party ensemble. Billed as Little Willie and his Talking Guitar, the troupe traveled to Miami.
"The legend about Willie Eason," Stone said, "was that he could not only make the guitar talk, he could make it get up and walk."
"I have my talent by the power and grace of God," Eason said. "After my accident with the elevator, my aunt fasted and prayed for 40 days -- she was always gifted with the power of prayer. Eventually God healed me and anointed my fingers with the power to play music."
Through his music, Eason spread the good news. He played with such world-renowned artists as Rosetta Tharpe, the Soul Stirrers and the Blind Boys of Alabama, and he recorded extensively. But most important, he spread the sacred steel style. He can't recall all the players he has influenced directly.
In 1940, after he was saved into the House of God, he started giving lessons to Lorenzo Harrison. Harrison was the son of Bishop M.F. Jewell, the leader of the Jewell Dominion. Harrison went on to become that dominion's most influential steel player. Two years later, Eason married Henry Nelson's sister, Alice, and eventually started helping Henry on the slide (a graying, framed picture of the pair, guitars in lap, hangs on Eason's wall). Nelson went on to become the dominant steel player in the Keith Dominion.
The driving, hypnotic Eason-Nelson style is the hallmark of Keith Dominion playing. Chuck Campbell is a Keith Dominion player. So is Randolph. Listen to his work with the Family Band or on The Word, and you'll hear extended, up-tempo praise-and-worship type instrumentals. That work bears close resemblance to the blues-based boogie styles -- not surprising, considering rock's roots in blues and gospel.
Despite this stylistic similarity, long tradition and scores of top-level players, the House of God's insular culture kept this music within the church for years. Musicians often had to break from their home church to play outside of it, Campbell said.
"We were taught to go to church, play our music and that was it," said Sarasota's Kenneth Ellis.
But in the early 1990s, a record-store owner in Hollywood, Fla., told folklorist Stone about the music. Stone got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to find, document and record examples of the style in Florida. Those recordings, along with some others, formed the basis of Arhoolie's Sacred Steel series, which debuted in 1997. The discs feature Eason, Nelson and Ghent, as well as other accomplished steel players such as Sonny Treadway and Glenn Lee.
With the door to wider exposure cracked open, Chuck Campbell and the Campbell brothers kicked it in. They didn't just play in other churches; they were the first players to take the House of God musical tradition to nonreligious settings. Starting in 1998, they started to tour extensively in the United States, Europe and Africa.
In the hands of Randolph and other young players, the style continues to evolve. And while Campbell was the first to play extensively outside of church, Randolph is the first to make music his full time profession.
Randolph, inspired by a cousin of Henry Nelson, took up the pedal steel at age 15. He started gigging outside of church in the fall of 2000. In the past year, he has done nearly 150 gigs.
"Growing up in church and never playing outside, I still remain surprised when I go out and see the reception we get, from everyone from hippie-type college kids to older listeners," Randolph said. "Knowing that your music communicates to people, it's a wonderful experience."
PREVIEW: Robert Randolph & the Family Band, 8 p.m. Saturday, Skipper's Smokehouse, 910 Skipper Road, Tampa. $12-$15. (813) 977-6474.