“Lorenzo had a jazzed-up swing approach,” acknowledges Ghent, “and that’s the Jewell sound. He also learned from Willie Eason, but he developed his own style. The melodic tuning and the bluesy sound of the Jewell Dominion players made the difference. In the Keith Dominion, we weren’t allowed to be that wild.”
Lap and table steel guitars are very expressive instruments, but they’re limited harmonically. In an effort to overcome this problem, Nashville guitarists started adding foot pedals and knee levers to their steels to enable them to change keys without retuning. Pioneers such as Bud Isaacs, Jimmy Day and Buddy Emmons soon made the pedal steel such a versatile, emotive instrument that every country record had to have one.
It was inevitable that the Sacred Steel guitarists would be drawn to this innovation. In the early ’70s, two veterans — Calvin Cooke and Ted Beard of Detroit — and one teenage prodigy — Chuck Campbell — traded in their table steels for pedal steel models. It was the biggest thing to hit Sacred Steel since the ’30s.
“When I was 14,” Chuck Campbell recalls, “I went to our 1971 General Assembly in Nashville. While I was there, I walked into a music store and saw Jimmy Day playing ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ on the pedal steel with a pick in one hand and a whiskey bottle in the other. It made me realize that the spirit wasn’t only in church, that this guy also had a connection, and that maybe the pedal steel had something to offer.
“Although I was impressed by the precision and prettiness of his playing, the real reason I took up the pedal steel was I wanted to imitate all my Sacred Steel heroes — Henry Nelson, Calvin Cooke and Ted Beard. I wanted to be able to switch between tunings with a switch of the pedal rather than having to retune the whole guitar. In church, you don’t have time to do that between songs. With the pedal steel, I could just press a few pedals and be in a different tuning.
“Lo and behold, that allowed me to play the chord progressions the country players used. And that allowed me to play with choirs. The new gospel writers like Andrae Crouch and Edwin Hawkins were writing songs that didn’t lend themselves to a straight E tuning, but with the pedal steel, I could play their songs, too. At the same time I switched, Ted Beard and Calvin Cooke switched over too. They felt they had gotten what they could get out of the tabletop; they felt they were blocked from progressing.”
Not every Sacred Steel guitarist jumped on the pedal steel bandwagon. Chuck’s younger brother Darick stuck with the eight-string tabletop and continued to play in the classic style of Willie Eason and Henry Nelson. Nelson’s son, Aubrey Ghent, continues to play the tabletop, too.
“Around ’78-79, I bought a Sho-Bud pedal steel and fooled around with it,” Ghent explains, “but it was a lot of work. Sometimes you got to the service, and it took so long to put in the rods and connect them to the pedals that the service was half over by the time you were ready. With the lap steel, you just took it out of the case, plugged it up and began to play. My dad plays six-string and Willie plays six-string, so I decided to keep that tradition alive.
“With the six- and eight-string, you can concentrate a whole lot on the spiritual without worrying about a lot of levers and pedals. We were encouraged not to play just for showmanship but to make sure it brought in edification for the congregation. We were encouraged not to be showoffs but to play in the spirit, so the playing lifted the spirit. That was implanted within us.”
The younger generation of Sacred Steel players — especially whizzes such as Robert Randolph and Glenn Lee — is following Chuck Campbell’s example with the pedal steel. They are borrowing tricks and licks from country musicians and applying them to the needs of House of God services. The two camps cross paths at music stores and on the internet.
The country pickers, in turn, are fascinated by their Sacred Steel counterparts. Buddy Emmons has spoken to Chuck Campbell about a possible collaboration. Alt-country guitarist Dan Tyack is dedicating tracks to Chuck and Aubrey Ghent on his next steel album.
Meanwhile, Stone is finishing up a video documentary about Sacred Steel and just beginning a book on the subject. He promises there will be more recordings for Arhoolie as well. Inch by inch, the music is easing out of the insular world of the Church of the Living God and entering the public arena.
“What we do in a theater is the same thing we do in church,” Katie Jackson claims. “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.”
“We had always wanted to record,” Chuck Campbell admits, “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.”
Geoffrey Himes worships in the church of irony but takes an ecumenical view of other religions.