By WALLACE BAINE
American mainstream musical audiences are already familiar with the steel guitar as an elemental sound in Hawaiian music and country/western music.
But even aficionados of the steel guitar might be surprised to learn of its deep-seated tradition in the African-American church,
The style known as “sacred steel” is stepping out into the spotlight this month with a new release by the Slide Brothers, four masters of the sacred-steel gospel tradition, presented by the high-profile steel player Robert Randolph. Randolph is, in fact, currently on tour with the Slide Brothers as part of a showcase for sacred steel music, and the tour rolls into the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on Feb. 20.
The show features Calvin Cooke, Darick Campbell, Aubrey Ghent and Chuck Campbell, all steel-guitar players who grew up in the House of God church, aka the Church of the Living God, the incubator for the sacred-steel tradition.
The House of God is divided into three “dominions,” two of which – the Keith Dominion and the Jewell Dominion – have employed the steel guitar in worship services dating back to the 1930s. Ghent, the oldest of the Slide Brothers, is, in fact, the nephew of the style’s original innovator, Willie Eason, who introduced the lap-steel as an alternative to the organ in church services.
“We actually represent five generations,” said 69-year-old Calvin Cooke by phone from home in central Georgia.
“Aubrey’s the first and I’m the second generation. Robert (Randolph) is the youngest. And now, we have a sixth generation of young boys learning how to play.”
In the House of God, the steel guitar is used largely to mimic the sound of the human voice as a way to support or lead the singing of the choir or the congregation.
“You’re there to back up whoever is singing, or to support the preacher,” said Cooke, “because the preacher can be very dramatic. Every local home church had a steel player who would help push the crowd, get them excited.”
Gospel is a big part of the Slide Brothers show with Robert Randolph, but it’s not the only part of the show. The debut album of the Slide Brothers, which will be officially released the day before the Santa Cruz concert, features gospel alongside the traditional blues of Chicago legend Elmore James, including “The Sky is Crying,” popularized by Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as renditions of hit songs by Fatboy Slim (“Praise You”) and George Harrison (“My Sweet Lord”).
Randolph and the four Slide Brothers will all play slide guitar in the show, trading off on lead runs and singing. Each of the players plays in their own distinctive tuning and in their own distinctive style, largely informed by which dominion in which they were raised.
“We also get to play some instrumentals, so you can hear the four different styles of play,” said Cooke.
Cooke has been playing steel guitar in a church setting for more than 55 years, having begun at the age of 11.
“The church brought in a regular guitar for me to play,” he said. “And I tried to play it, but I wasn’t comfortable with it, so I ended up getting a knife and playing it like a steel. Then my mother went out and bought me a Rickenbacker six-string steel guitar, because she knew I preferred the steel.”