Take away Katie Jackson's fervently reverent vocals on "God Is a Good God" (RealAudio excerpt) the opening track on the 1999 album Sacred Steel Live! and you might think you were listening to legendary electric blues slide guitarist Elmore James. Or perhaps to the Allman Brothers Band when Duane Allman was still with them.
That's testimony to the skills of the album's players, the Campbell Brothers: Phillip, lead guitar; Darick, lap steel guitar; Charles ("Chuck"), pedal steel guitar; and Phillip's son Carlton, 15, drums.
This weekend, the Campbells are scheduled to appear with lap steel master Willie Eason, 78, and other steel players at the first Sacred Steel Convention, on Friday and Saturday in the Orlando, Fla., area.
That the Campbells are such outstanding players, able to move from the spiritual "Take Your Burden to the Lord" (where they back Eason) to the well-titled, Southern-rockish "Sit Down If You Can," is even more remarkable when you consider that they developed their sound solely in church, in their case the Keith Dominion denomination of the House of God Church, that feared not only God, but blues and rock 'n' roll influences.
"The Campbell Brothers are like third generation, and that's the great thing about this Sacred Steel convention," Chuck Campbell said. "I know it's going to be a blast, because for the first time all of us are getting together; you'll see generations of players.
"Everyone we talk to says and reviews say that we remind them of the best slide players they've ever heard," Chuck Campbell said, "whether it's Allman Brothers or guys that play with Rolling Stones, good slide players that have used effects and things.
"But it's still a little different," he continued. "And the difference is it was born out of the church, more so than trying to mimic anybody.
"We as Campbell brothers, being younger, do have some influences of pop music, but that would be the extent of it. But as far as blues players, we've just been learning about blues players as we've been playing out on the road," the 42-year-old said.
"Our idea of blues was only B.B. King, or something we saw on television. Because we never had secular records around the house."
Pushing The Envelope
The "fourth generation" is represented by the likes of Robert Randolph his "Without God" (RealAudio excerpt) is also featured on Sacred Steel: LIVE! and Glenn Lee, both of whom will be at the convention.
As Bill Monroe was to bluegrass, Eason was to Sacred Steel. As a teen, he played National steel guitar and, when his older brother would leave his newfangled electric steel guitar unattended, would pick up that instrument too. In the 1930s Eason, in league with the Keith Dominion's Gospel Feast Party band, introduced the "talking" steel guitar style that is still being practiced today: "The bottom line of it is to always sound like, or be able to mimic, the moans or the lyrics of the song," Campbell said.
As the years passed, the steel guitarists in the Keith and Jewell Dominions, concentrated in Florida but spreading slowly around the country the Campbell brothers' church is in Rochester, N.Y., where their father is bishop continued to "push the envelope," according to Campbell, because "in the Pentecostal church, you always have had to reach to be as charismatic and in the spirit, as much as possible."
That spirit might have remained in church were it not for the persistence of Arhoolie Records, the tradition-uncovering label that already has released five Sacred Steel CDs, starting in 1997, and has another in the works. If not for Arhoolie, Campbell said, he might never have heard Eason play.
"All I heard about Willie Eason was these 'big fish' stories. And they kept getting bigger and bigger as the legend kept growing," he said. "And no matter where you played, people in the congregation would always come up and go, 'You guys play well, but you're not a patch on Willie Eason's britches, because that guy made it talk.' And that's the standard we've always been judged by."
Campbell, who also will appear with his brothers on the closing day of the upcoming New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, is generally considered the hottest Sacred Steel player today, pioneering the use of the pedal, rather than lap, steel guitar.
"Actually, there are some younger guys coming along who are taking it to another level. I'm in my early 40s, and these guys that are in their 20s are pushing it another step, and it's beautiful to behold," he said.
The Sacred Steel Convention, with concerts, workshops, seminars and more, will be held at Bush Auditorium, Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park, Fla. For information, call (904) 698-2547.