In 1903, a Tennessee street preacher named Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate founded the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy. As a Holiness or Pentecostal Church, it emphasized a belief that the Holy Spirit can enter the soul of a true believer and change his or her life. When Tate died in 1930, a leadership battle broke out, and a 1933 court order divided the church into three parts, now known as the Jewell, Keith and McLeod Dominions. The Keith Dominion is also known as the House of God.
In the early ’30s, even as the court order was being written, a Hawaiian guitar craze swept the United States; for several years, electric steel guitars outsold conventional electric guitars. Western swing and hillbilly bands embraced the instrument because it had the same legato qualities as the fiddle and dobro but with a broader range and more power. In the Keith and Jewell Dominions, however, musicians liked it because it so closely mimicked the note-slurring melisma of their vocal soloists.
In Philadelphia, Truman Eason bought a lap steel and took lessons from a local Hawaiian. Truman showed his little brother Willie how to play a few licks, and when the two brothers started playing the newfangled instrument in their local House of God church, the response was instantaneous.
“The congregation was thrilled when the steel came in,” Willie Eason says. “It was amazing for us as musicians to see how thrilled they were. People liked it right from the start. The members in the church would be clapping hands, shaking their tambourines and doing the holy dance; that’s how sanctified people rejoice.”
Eason, now 71, defined the classic Sacred Steel sound on his six-string lap steel. Though he retained elements of the Hawaiian and hillbilly styles, he pretty much invented a whole new style for the instrument. He imitated the traditional gospel piano by strumming rhythmic chords, and he imitated wailing gospel singers by sliding up and down one string.
In the ’40s, Eason took to street-corner preaching. He would plug his lap steel’s extension cord into a nearby store, and he would preach, sing and play for anyone who walked by. He collected donations in an upturned hat and billed himself as “Little Willie and His Talking Guitar”.
“If I said something, it seemed like the guitar could repeat it,” Eason explained. “If you sang a song like ‘Jesus Keep Me Near The Cross’, the steel guitar could make it sound like it was saying the words, too. I’ve heard people say, ‘Listen to that; it’s talking.’ This is why they call it the singing guitar or the talking guitar.
“One time I was out on the street playing in Chicago, and I ran my extension cord into a cleaners that was owned by James Medlock, one of the Soul Stirrers. That’s how the Soul Stirrers heard me, and they asked would I like to record? I was a little shy, but I thought that was a great thing; I didn’t know I was that good.
“We made an appointment, and I went down there to record ‘Pearl Harbor’ and ‘Why I Like Roosevelt’. At the time, the war was on, and I would take words from the newspaper and put them together into a song. Wherever you get a line that will rhyme and have some meaning, that’s what you use.”
Eason’s two 78s with the Soul Stirrers were released on Aladdin in 1947. As Brother Willie Eason, he released “There’ll Be No Grumblers There” and “I Want To Live (So God Can Use Me)” on Regent in 1951; these two are part of the CD anthology Guitar Evangelists: 1928-1951, available from either England’s Gospel Heritage Records or Germany’s Document Records. Far more important than his recordings, though, was his impact on a whole generation of Church of the Living God steel guitarists.
Eason’s first wife, Alice, had a younger brother, Henry Nelson, who avidly imitated everything his older brother-in-law did. Nelson soon became known in his own right for his warm tone and subtle dynamics on the six-string table steel. When Mahalia Jackson heard him in 1959, she was so impressed that she invited him to play on her Columbia recording of “To Me It’s So Wonderful”. Nelson subsequently passed his knowledge on to his son, Aubrey Ghent.
“When my father and I played together,” the 40-year-old Ghent says, “people liked it, because we were father and son. Our styles were closely related, and we could play together with no problem; it was almost as if we thought alike. It just enthused me that I was playing with my father; our personalities connected so well. The sound portrayed by Willie Eason and my father was the sacred sound, the true House of God sound.”
Eason, Nelson, Ghent and the Campbells belong to the Keith Dominion, but one of Eason’s most eager disciples was the late Lorenzo Harrison of the Jewell Dominion, who had gone to high school with Nelson. Harrison took the Eason style, slowed it down, added more chord changes and gave it a boogie-woogie rhythm. This became known as the Jewell sound, and Sonny Treadway is its greatest living practitioner.