Even those who are only casually familiar with sacred steel music—a funky gospel style built around the soaring sounds of steel guitar—probably know Robert Randolph.
A flashy, energetic guitarist known as much for his joyful originals as for a wealth of rock and soul covers, Randolph began attracting national attention a decade ago after collaborating with John Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars as The Word. He's since found an audience in fans of jam bands, blues and gospel, appearing alongside heavyweights like Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews Band, at Bonnaroo and scores of rock clubs, and on television shows like Grey's Anatomy.
Indeed, most any conversation about modern sacred steel music begins with Randolph, but not always on a positive note. He often makes it hard to remember that the style dates back to the church services of the House of God denomination in the 1930s, particularly when tackling Busta Rhymes' "Touch It" or Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," as he did at the Arkansas festival Wakarusa last year.
"A lot of people say that you're going away from what you do, but you have to broaden your mind and your skill level because you're not just playing to the church congregation," says DaShawn Hickman, who plays pedal steel guitar and occasionally sings in the Mount Airy sacred steel quartet The Allen Boys. "Everybody's not going to understand what you're doing."
While most sacred steel bands rarely play outside of worship services, the Allens—the tradition's only touring group in the state—hit the region hard in 2007. Despite what he's learned about appealing to a wider audience during his time playing outside of the church, Hickman doesn't expect The Allen Boys to showcase that side when kicking off this weekend's Southern Sacred Steel Conference, a new event meant to showcase the form's roots and crossover potential. "People want to know about our church style of play," he says, "not so much that we can play Michael Jackson or Jimi Hendrix."
The ArtsCenter's concert director, Tess Mangum Ocaña, doesn't think that approach will make the music any less appealing. She believes that sacred steel has an immediacy that will hook new listeners. "Once you hear the music, you'll be a fan for life. I joke with [Hickman] that if the white Southern Baptist church I went to growing up had the music he plays, I'd still be going to church. Am I allowed to admit that?"
Ocaña's created a comprehensive program that runs from Thursday to Sunday, encompassing steel guitar master classes, lectures, a photography exhibit and a Sunday morning worship service and potluck. And, of course, there will be concerts: Two of the style's most prominent national acts—Florida's Lee Boys and Nashville's Aubrey Ghent Band—will join The Allen Boys.
The Lees hew closest to Randolph's hybrid of traditional sacred steel and funkified rock. They've performed at major festivals and on late-night television, and collaborated with bluegrass blue bloods The Travelin' McCourys, too. As a third-generation lap steel player, Rev. Aubrey Ghent sticks more to gospel roots, though he adds soulful vocals to the mostly instrumental music. The Allen Boys will also play the church service, which Hickman hopes will give attendees a new perspective on sacred steel.
"I'm hoping that people will come and won't just be spectators, but will feel free to clap their hands and get involved in the church service without making it a sideshow," he says. "[The music is] not meant to be taking away from what church is really supposed to be. We're simply helping the minister and helping people praise."
Notes Sean Moeller, a writer for the music blog Daytrotter, "We don't have to belong to any church to get filled with his spirit, to feel what he's feeling." Moeller was commenting on a recent session with Randolph, but the same applies across the sacred steel spectrum: "At the end of the show," Hickman says, "I think [listeners] will better understand that this is music to uplift the spirit."