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The Allen Boys are ready to take their sound beyond their church. This week, they'll help begin The ArtsCenter's fifth annual American Roots Series.

The Allen Boys 

N.C.'s only touring Sacred Steel band builds on traditions of faith and family

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click to enlarge DaShawn Hickman (right) plays pedal steel, while his cousin, Ranzy Moore, plays drums in the Mt. Airy church they've always attended.
  • DaShawn Hickman (right) plays pedal steel, while his cousin, Ranzy Moore, plays drums in the Mt. Airy church they've always attended.

Kimberly Hickman answers the phone and yells for her husband, DaShawn. There's no answer. A door opens, and she asks for him again. The signal from the cordless phone begins to pop and crackle, overdriven by the sound of a smooth 12-string steel guitar. The strings sigh into silence, and DaShawn, 26, finally says, "Hello?"

It's almost 10 on a Friday night, and DaShawn Hickman is doing what he's been doing indefatigably since he was 7 years old: Practicing his Sacred Steel, the musical tradition invented in the New Jersey-based House of God churches in the 1930s. Hickman grew up in a small granite-and-wood church in Mt. Airy. His mother played the steel until she quit to become the minister of the church. He started playing in church and formed The Allen Boys with three cousins on bass, drums and keys. Now, with pedal steel player Robert Randolph pioneering a measure of popularity for the instrument, The Allen Boys are ready to take their sound beyond their church. They're finishing a record and talking to booking agents about tours across the country. This week, the band will help begin The ArtsCenter's fifth annual American Roots Series. Putting down his pick and slide for a rare hour, Hickman talked to us about his past and future with the instrument.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What first drew you into the steel guitar? Was it more the tradition or the sound?

DASHAWN HICKMAN: The sound. It's an instrument where you can really express yourself. If you're sad, you can tell by the way you play, or if you're excited. It's an expressive instrument.

The steel guitar has always reminded me of a mood ring in the way it reflects the emotions of the person playing it. Can you play happy if you're sad?

You can definitely fake it. But if you're not into it at the time, it will show itself. Like you said, like a mood ring, if I'm not feeling what I'm doing, you can tell it because the instrument will tell on you—missing notes, just sounding really whiny. Some country songs sound really dreary and dragging. On the other hand, you can sound excited about what you're doing. If I'm in a crowd and they're really feeling what I'm doing, that makes me play even harder and more expressive.

Has playing the instrument ever changed your mood for the better?

Always. Every time I sit behind the guitar and I'm feeling down. People have come up to me after a show and said, "I appreciate what you brung, what you did because I was feeling down. You guys playing—that's what made me forget about what happened." The music that we play makes you forget about everything that happened in the day and just have fun, enjoy your experience, move around a little bit.

At church, you're supposed to forget your worldly woes and do what you came to do—worship. It seems like the Sacred Steel tradition is a strong conduit for that.

That's exactly the point.

Robert Randolph came up in the House of God tradition, and now he headlines in big concert halls and opens in amphitheatres. Have his fame and his definitive rock orientation changed things for young Sacred Steel players?

It's affected a big part of it. A lot of people know him, and they see us and think, "Robert Randolph." They want to hear the hard stuff that he does. I try to tell the guys that I don't want to do it like Robert. I want to keep it to what we know and what we do. That's what got Robert famous, and he went away from that. I'm not talking negative about Robert, but I want to keep the tradition of what we do. I think Robert is one of the best steel players out there, and he is doing something so different. People think the steel guitar is country music, but it's not: It can be Van Halen if you want it to be, or it can be Hendrix, or it can be Buddy Emmons, a great country steel player. Everyone has their own style. As far as I'm concerned, I like to stick very close to where I came from.

Robert is known for rock and funk in his music, but I hear a lot of Memphis soul in what you do. It's almost romantic. Where does that come from?

One of our songs, "Walk With Me," is about asking God to keep close to you, to be by your side at all times. We have a part of the service where they do the offering in church, and we play what's called The March. Everybody goes around and puts their money on the table to The March. A lot of the other stuff is praise music, but we've just slowed it down and put another beat to it. But it all goes back to the church.

When he first played North Carolina in 2002, Robert was coming to grips with bringing church music to rock clubs. He said, "This is my church now." How do you feel about that?

In a way, yeah. We're taking this music and trying to reach other people...almost like missionaries. I'm not trying to get anybody to convert or anything like that, but I'm trying to say that there is something else out there than what you see.

So are you trying to get your music to people on that level outside of the church?

Absolutely. Every day, that's what I'm thinking about, trying to get more people to experience it. We played the Charleston Pour House [in South Carolina] a few weeks ago. I'd never played in South Carolina outside of the church. The people appreciated it, and they showed a lot of support for something a lot of them, basically, had never heard. They were jumping around, having fun. That's what I try to instill in the guys: We can do this, and people can have fun and experience something different. A lot of people have never heard or seen black guys playing pedal steel. Even though Robert Randolph has been out front doing this for the past four years or so, a lot of people still don't know who he is. A lot of older people have never experienced this style of music, and that's what I'm trying to get to—a lot of the people that don't know this music.

And most of these people are probably white, right? That's got to be interesting, watching a group of young black guys make joyous music with instruments they'd normally associate with white people and sad songs.

Right. That was our experience at Shakori Hills in October. We had played there in April, but people really didn't know who we were. They were hearing us for the first time, and we got a great response from them. So we go back in October, and we had a crowd of at least 400 under a tent that was probably a 60 feet-by-60 feet, maybe larger. But there were people all under the tent, outside of the tent. A lot of people said, "I've never heard this kind of music before." The majority of them were white people, and that's what you find a lot of in your fan base here. I'm very cool with that. They find it interesting, where a lot of people where I grew up already know this music. Now that the music has gone out into different spaces, different people are attracted to this style of music. That's pretty much who shows up at our shows, Caucasian people. They love it. They love it. And I love playing for them.

The Allen Boys headline the second night of a benefit for Carrboro's WCOM 103.5 FM on Saturday, Jan. 5. Lucy Sumner & the Second Third and Django Haskins share the bill, with Club Boheme, The Ramblers and Missy Raines & the New Hip playing Friday, Jan. 4. Both shows begin at 8:30 p.m. and cost $15.

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