Recording of February 1998: Sacred Steel

Arhoolie CD450 (CD). 1997. Robert Stone, prod.; Chris Strachwitz, exec. prod. AAD? TT: 74:29
Performance *****
Sonics ****

There isn't a whole lot of culture left in America that hasn't been mass-produced, mass-marketed, and just plain massacred. When foreigners say that America has no culture other than CNN, McDonald's, and warm Bud Lite, they're almost right. Musically, this means that, other than dwindling pockets of Mississippi and Texas electric blues, cajun and zydeco in Louisiana and perhaps a touch of Appalachian bluegrass, America's genuinely distinct, homegrown music now belongs to the discs cut by Alan Lomax and the other "song collectors" of the early 20th century.

There is, however, one man (trumpet fanfare and snare roll, please) who continues to search for new additions to this legacy: Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records. Unfortunately for Strachwitz, the watered-down, media-drenched modern world has made it tough for him to find his passion, so it's been years since he recorded what's universally acknowledged as the guts of his company's catalog—records by Clifton Chenier, Lightning Hopkins, and Flaco Jimenez, to name the brightest stars. Happily, Strachwitz' persistence occasionally turns up an overlooked gem, most recently in the form of sacred steel-guitar music.

The story of how the lap (and later the pedal) steel guitar became a key element of the music found in the Jewel, Keith, and Lewis Dominions—three Holiness-Pentecostal churches based primarily in the south—is too long to recount here. But it's easy to suss out why a lap or pedal steel would be perfect in this setting. For one thing, steel guitars are a lot cheaper than a big, honkin' pipe organ. Back in the 1930s, when these churches grew the most, many did not own buildings so their music also had to be portable. And the steel is the perfect accompaniment for the Pentecostal religious experience, which gets frenzied—those moved by the spirit are prone to dance, shout out, and speak in tongues.

For the uninitiated, the most intriguing part of sacred steel playing is trying to wrap your mind around the concept. My first reaction was to imagine Leon McAuliffe, Speedy West, or one of the other great country steel players picking out a religious standard like "How Great Thou Art." Like the steel guitarists in country music, the sacred steel players are both accompanists and soloists. And while playing hymns is one of the two modes that most sacred steel music falls into, there's also an upbeat, dare I say it, "hot" style called "praise music," in which players try to ignite the crowd with fast pickin' and lots of slide fireworks.

A couple of listens to this disc and the word "virtuoso" crosses your mind fairly regularly to describe these gifted, mostly self-taught players—the spare, careful Sonny Treadway, the bluesy Glenn Lee, the old master Willie Eason, and the young, powerful Aubrey Ghent. Because their playing is so powerful, you positively do not have to be religious to enjoy this unusual, authentic music.

These recordings, all of which were made by the State of Florida's Folklife Council between 1993 and 1996, were first released on a cassette edition that is now out of print. Licensed by Arhoolie, they were re-edited by Strachwitz for inclusion on this generously stuffed disc.

Being able to choose an Arhoolie disc for Stereophile's "Recording of the Month" is particularly gratifying: first, because this is a new record of current music, not a compilation of older tracks; and second, unlike historic compilations—which often come from 78s and worn masters whose fidelity is less than pristine—the sound here is key, but not for the reason you might expect.

In the live cuts that comprise about half the disc, you are there, sweating and clapping and getting caught up in the spirit of the kind of event where this music belongs. In "This is a Holy Church," a prime example of the upbeat, barely controlled chaos that characterizes the "praise song," vocalist Fayette Coney shrieks and wails throughout, heightening both the congregation's fervor and steel player Sonny Treadway's skilled, economical fills and solos.

The feeling of being out in the pews reaches its peak, however, in a pair of songs recorded at the House of God Church No.2 in Ocala, Florida. With the steel, the other players, and the congregation all sounding natural, the Reverend Bessie Brinson sings "Amazing Grace" and "Praise the Lord Everybody" through a cracked and overloaded microphone. The contrast is exactly what you you'd have heard had you been there. Without such a charged setting, the studio tracks that open Sacred Steel seem tame by comparison.

Since licensing the material on Sacred Steel—whose other honors include being named Guitar Player Magazine's "Breakthrough Album of 1997"—Strachwitz has released several newly recorded single-artist compilations: Sonny Treadway's "Jesus Will Fix It" (CD462), the Campbell Brothers' "Pass Me Not" (CD461), and Aubrey Ghent & Friends' "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus" (CD463). While these studio recordings have more clarity and depth, and a lot more bass impact, they lack the passion and improvised eloquence that make the live-in-the-church recordings so full-blooded and compelling. Fans of Alan Lomax and the other early folklorists, take heart: In our increasingly homogenous culture can still be found a few pockets of indigenous music, of which the sacred steel tradition is definitely one.—Robert Baird