The Campbell Brothers
Opening for blues artist Eric Bibb
Friday, Feb. 9, 8 p.m.
Carolina Theatre, Durham
The Deep South drink houses and juke joints that once emanated the raw blues are all but dead. Record-label normalization of American music has reached a new height through online channels of distribution. Regionalism, you would think, is gone. But, across the country, little known pockets of American music still thrive in their own tiny corners. One of the richest thriving traditions lives in small African-American churches around the country. It's called the sacred steel, and it's a unique, electric strain of gospel music, as regionally relevant as it nationally potent.
Sacred steel grew from a tradition of early high-energy churches, detailed in the 1984 book by blues historian Paul Oliver, Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records: "The heat, excitement and infectious enthusiasm of the churches, heightened by the fierce exhortation of the preachers, the 'shouting' of holy dancers and the accompaniment of musical instruments provoked profound emotional experiences which were evidence that they were joining the congregation of Saints."
Imagine it: An instrument mostly associated with white country music was brought into the black church by a player named Willie Eason. The tradition grew from Eason, who influenced a current strain including the Campbell Brothers, one of the best-known sacred steel groups today. Their popularity grew from their willingness to take the instrument outside their own church—the House of God (Keith Dominion) Church in Rush, N.Y.—and spread the gospel, much like the genre's other national hot shot, Robert Randolph. When the Campbell Brothers play Durham's Carolina Theatre Friday night, they'll be returning to the mainland from a tour in the other home of the steel guitar, Hawaii.
The reasons for the popular success of the four Campbell brothers—Chuck, Darick, Phillip and Carlton—and the instrument at large are apparent: The instrumentation, with Chuck on the pedal steel and Darick on lap steel, Phillip on electric guitar and Carlton on drums—is driving. Vocalists Denise Brown and Katie Jackson are in charge of the energizing shouts and soaring leads that define sacred steel. Jackson has even shared the stage with another gospel singer who shared her last name, the legendary Mahalia Jackson.
Chuck Campbell is considered the third generation of House of God guitarists. He influenced Randolph, who has now found commercial success in a funky framework stepping outside the religious constraints of sacred steel. (Randolph plays the Carolina Theatre Feb. 17.) Randolph has since received two Grammy nominations and worked nationally on the jam band circuit, though The Campbell Brothers have stayed closer to their musical roots, even while on the road. They may play their celebratory music in amphitheaters and to festival audiences, but they maintain the spiritual center that erupts in small country churches. It's like someone opening a Pentecostal Holiness church in a big backyard, with enough sweat rolling off brows to drown the Devil.
And why would anyone want to lose that feeling? Outside of leading the group's songs, the steel guitarist works closely with the minister in worship services, giving dramatic power to sermons with voice-like string work. It rises and falls with the enthralling strength of African-American gospel singing. In a typical House of God service, the preacher leads a sermon punctuated by the steel guitar's undulations, his clenched fists rising in the air to foothold terms like "Power-uh!" The band percolates behind his preaching, then revs up as congregants approach the altar to dance frenetically in joy.
That power is held by one well-known North Carolina band, Mount Airy's The Allen Boys. They represent the fourth generation of this music, boys in their 20s following the guideposts of their predecessors. They performed at UNC-Chapel Hill last October, though they rarely bring the music outside of their own House of God church.
"I mostly play in church," says Allen Boy DaShawn Hickman, who plays a 12-string steel in Chuck Campbell's sacred steel E-7th tuning. He runs his guitar through a litany of modern effects, including using an E-bow and a fuzz box. But he's firmly rooted in the instrument's past, illustrated by his simple proclamation of loyalty: "Sacred-steel country." If this music had not been nurtured behind the closed doors of the church—that is, if it had not been kept sacred rather than quickly made secular—perhaps we wouldn't see groups like the Campbells now and then.