No rock, no rap, no hip-hop. No soul, no blues, no jazz, no country and Western. About the only sounds you heard on a regular basis were within the confines of your conservative church.
Sounds pretty dismal, right?
Now imagine that the music played as a key component of your family’s style of worship was every bit as powerful as the grittiest down-home blues, the fieriest Southern rock, and swung like the devil (well, strike that last one).
Chuck, Darick and Phillip Campbell don’t have to imagine such an environment. They lived it. As devout, lifetime members of the House of God, they were raised in a rigid, insular environment that centered around Christian faith and praise.
Forbidden to buy or actively listen to any genre other than what was routinely heard in their congregation, the only mainstream music the 48-year-old Chuck was exposed to for at least the first two decades of his life was whatever chanced to fall into his open ears in public.
However, despite an upbringing devoid of sonic variety, Chuck and his brothers have recently emerged as some of the most celebrated –and exciting– gospel musicians in the world.
“In fact,” says Chuck with a mixture of pride and amazement, “I’m given a lot of credit for updating this style. I even won a National Endowment for it.”
The style he’s referring to is called Sacred Steel, and while it’s been commonplace at House of God gatherings for close to a century, it’s brand-new as far as most of the rest of us are concerned. Based around the haunting tones of electrified steel guitars, it finds dexterous pickers coaxing moans, wails, screams and trembling bolts of melodic noise from their horizontal, slide instruments.
Though Sacred Steel has only been on public display for a little over a decade, in the past few years, its popularity has grown by leaps and bounds, and it has begun to trickle down and cross-pollinate other genres – finding a home in (most notably) the high-octane jam-rock approach of Robert Randolph, one of a few pioneering acolytes.
We spoke with pedal steel man Chuck Campbell by phone the morning after he and his band (which features Darick on lap steel and Phillip on electric guitar and MIDI interface, as well as drummer Carlton Campbell, and vocalists Denise Brown and Katie Jackson) returned from a triumphant run of dates in France and The Netherlands – including a live appearance on a highly rated Dutch TV show.
Connect Savannah: A lot of folks outside the African-American community have never even heard of Sacred Steel before.
Chuck Campbell: Well, unfortunately, it’s not very well known inside the African-American community, either. (laughs) This tradition started in our church back in the ‘30s. Over the decades, things evolved, and now it’s our dominant instrument. The organ, guitar and piano all back up the steel! It’s largely unknown because it was extremely taboo for us to play at other churches or venues of any kind. You would be looked on as not being a true believer if you did something like that. People could always come to one of our churches and hear it, but if any of our members ever sat in as a guest at another type of church, they wouldn’t dream of playing like this.
Connect Savannah: And yet now, your band and a few others play openly – and to great international acclaim.
Chuck Campbell: Around 1992, a folklorist from Florida named Bob Stone wanted to document this style of music for posterity. He got a grant to tape some of it in one of our churches down there, and when Arhoolie Records heard it, they wanted to put it out commercially. The Florida bands directed him to us up here in Rochester, N.Y., as we’ve been recognized as being at the forefront of this style. This is the first time in history people outside our church have been made aware of this.
Connect Savannah: You play pedal and Darick plays lap. Do you ever swap off?
Chuck Campbell: I started on lap and progressed to pedal, so I stick with that now. I’ve been playing since the ‘70s, and helped adapt the instrument to our style, which is closer to blues than country and Western. Now, I love traditional country –and Texas swing– but I could never play it as well. (laughs) Darick is the youngest, but to compete with me, he went the other way, back to the old style – and he’s become a monster of the lap steel.
Connect Savannah: Being brothers, is there ever any sibling rivalry?
Chuck Campbell: (laughs) At all times! (laughs) We like to say there’s no room for two steels in one church. (laughs) The Sacred Steel has a long tradition of “gunslinging.” It’s always been a friendly competition in our churches, but make no mistake – it’s a competition! Some may deny it, but onstage, nobody takes any prisoners. (laughs) In fact, over in Europe, we were travelling with Calvin Cook, my steel mentor, from Detroit, and it was the exact same thing. We ride in the same van and eat together and love one another, but when it comes to the show, it’s all about reaching a hand out to God and doing your very best for Him. No prisoners.
Connect Savannah: I’m surprised there’s that much of a throwdown going on.
Chuck Campbell: It’s nothin’ but a head cuttin’ contest! In fact, Darick married a girl from Macon, and I distinctly remember going down and playing with him while he was living there. It got to the point that I told our father –who was the Bishop of the Diocese– that we couldn’t play together any more. It wasn’t until this band hit the road that we even considered sharing the stage again. (laughs) Arhoolie likes things a little more raw, and prefer my brother’s style because he’s more old-school, and I’m more rock-oriented. Now, our shows are about head-cutting between me and Darick, and the singers as well. The steel guitar’s always gets everybody participating at a fever pitch, so if the audience winds up active as well, there can be very inspirational chaos.
Connect Savannah: Why is it not taboo anymore to play this music in public?
Chuck Campbell: Our church got a new national leader around 1990, and he pretty much blessed our going out and sharing this, and having outside people come in and document our ways. It’s funny, me and my family were some of the very first folks to make records, but that was back in ‘87, and we tried to make it sound like contemporary gospel of the time, which meant synthesizers and drum machines.
Connect Savannah: Polka dot shirts and Miami Vice vests and puffy jackets?
Chuck Campbell: It got to be about that bad, yeah. (laughs) People liked the record, but most of ‘em said, hey, this doesn’t sound like you do in church. It never dawned on us to record that. It felt like we’d be doing something primitive. Now I realize this is a style of gospel a lot of people can really connect to. It’s been embraced by the roots music and blues communities. The secular crowds are where we find a lot of fans. They wanna hear that real deep soulful praise.
Connect Savannah: Your band plays festivals like ours, and at huge gatherings like Bonnaroo. What about nightclubs?
Chuck Campbell: We get many offers to play in bars or clubs, and we take a lot of them. At first it was very strange, but you know, in 1999 we played Morocco, and this whole palace full of Islamists were screaming right along, in Jesus’ name! We feel it’s our duty and a great honor to share what we do with people of different faiths, nationalities and walks of life. This is our way of praising God. Ultimately, that’s our only goal. Not that people have to join in with us. We’re not trying to Evangelize them into being Christians. We’re trying to show by example. If you’d like to join us, that’d be great. Doesn’t Gregg Allman live in Savannah?
Connect Savannah: Right down the road.
Chuck Campbell: We’ve sat in and played with The Allman Brothers a few times, and Derek Trucks’ band, too. We got along famously. Greg has just been beautiful, man. When we first came out, people assumed I based my playing on the way Duane played the slide. The thing was - I didn’t even know who they were! (laughs) I told Gregg that I could really her a lot of spirituality in their songs. He told me, “When I’m singing, I enjoy the fans, but it’s just about me and God.” I never thought someone of his stature would be singing from his soul like that. That’s been a major adjustment for us. But now that we’ve played with Al Green, Mavis Staples and B.B. King, I’ve learned they all feel the exact same way. Now other churches want to learn how they can use Sacred Steel. We’ve made some instructional videos, and we’re encouraging other denominations to add it to their services.
Connect Savannah: Aren’t you worried that’ll dilute the one thing that makes the House of God’’s worship so unique?
Chuck Campbell: There’s two trains of thought to that. One says that God gave this to me, and if he wants to give it to someone else, he will. I believe God gave me this to share around the world, and if it comes back in different forms of inspiration, like meeting good people such as yourself, then that’s the least I can do to show thanks. I’m glad to do what I can.
The Campbell Brothers appear with The Sweet Singing Harmony Harmoneers, Kenny Carr & The Tigers, and The Savannah Music Festival Mass Choir with James Bignon at The Johnny Mercer Theatre at 7:30 pm, Saturday. Tickets at www.savannahmusicfestival.org, or by phone or in person at the Trustees Theatre Box Office (call 525-5050).