March 6th, 2007
The steel guitar has played an important role in sculpting the sound of many genres of music. Most predominately, it is associated with putting a ‘twang’ in country music through the sounds of the lap and pedal steel guitar, as well as the ‘whine’ that is found within the Hawaiian “slack key guitar” tradition of Hawaiian music. The steel guitar serves these genres of music in a very identifiable, yet, supporting role. A unique contrast to the background role of this instrument is found within the African American House of God Keith Dominion Pentecostal church, where the steel guitar is placed front and center of the church’s music and worship service. This “sacred steel” tradition has played a leading role in the House of God as well as the Church of the Living God for several decades.
The term “sacred steel” refers to two different types of steel guitar: the lap steel guitar and pedal steel guitar. The notion of “steel” refers to the steel bar that is used in the left hand of the musician on both of these instruments. When playing the lap steel the ring finger and pinky wrap around the volume knob that is rocked back and forth producing an effect called the “volume swell.” The pedal steel creates this same effect but is a more elaborate version of the lap steel that was introduced into the church in 1973 by Maurice “Ted” Beard (cf. Robert L. Stone). While the lap steel focuses more on single-line phrases, a pedal steel allows for more chords and a more rhythmic approach that seeks to imitate and inspire the shouts, stomps, rhythm and cries that are heard during worship.
Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida (Arhoolie Records, 1997, prod. by Robert Stone) was the first CD compilation to focus on the pioneers of both the pedal and lap steel guitar such as Willie Eason and Henry Nelson. It was these musicians, among others (in particular pedal steel guitarists Maurice “Ted” Beard and Calvin Cooke), who have passed down the tradition to pedal steel virtuoso Robert Randolph, a member of the House of God church in Maplewood, New Jersey. Randolph is responsible for taking this tradition outside of the church and into the secular world of Manhattan night clubs and the commercial recording industry. This transition can be examined through Robert Randolph & The Family Band’s Live at the Wetlands (2002), Unclassified (2003), and their latest studio release, Colorblind.
Live at the Wetlands was recorded in a NYC nightclub and the band immediately brought the audience to their feet with a foot stomping ‘march.’ Although this was not The House of God church, Randolph was stirring the sounds of the church inside the club and guiding the audience the entire way. One might ask, then, if Robert Randolph & the Family Band can successfully translate their live performances into a studio recording. In the opening moments of their latest release, Colorblind, this question is answered. “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That” makes it clear that Randolph has not abandoned his gospel roots since the hand claps, foot stomping, and call and response are still prominent throughout the song. It is also evident in his words and in the variety of genres he touches on throughout the song that Randolph is not interested in labels or classification. The music and its ability to move the audience are of the utmost importance. His guitar has less of a pedal steel reflection than his predecessors from the House of God. Instead, his tone contains more of the heavy distortion and ‘wah-wah’ effect that is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton rather than Willie Eason. His lead solos also reflect more of this rock guitar influence with his fast paced and staccato attack on the guitar. In fact, Clapton himself trades guitar solos with Randolph on their rendition of the Doobie Brothers classic “Jesus is Just Alright.” The quilting of musical genres is also demonstrated in the heavily funk influenced tune “Deliver Me,” which is infused with spiritual reflections.
Colorblind offers an excellent mix of the polished studio sound and the spirituality and intensity that Robert Randolph & the Family Band bring to their music. The variety of musical genres continues throughout the album with the R&B infused “Blessed” and the soulful sounds of “Angels.” It is interesting to hear the volume swells and sliding pitch elevation the pedal steel provides when placed in the context of these genres and heavily produced arrangements. Unfortunately, the charm of the volume swells and the pedal steel’s ability to mimic the human voice is not as evident in this polished setting. Instead of taking center stage, the pedal steel provides more of a standard rhythm and solo accompaniment found in mainstream popular music. With that said, Randolph provides an interesting balance when bringing the sacred steel tradition to the confines of the recording studio.
It is clear that Robert Randolph & the Family Band are trying to find out how their past influence in the House of God Church can interact with the present and future. Their latest album succeeds in fulfilling the needs of the commercial recording industry, without abandoning their roots in the House of God and the sacred steel tradition. As Randolph’s popularity grows, it is hopeful that the popularity and recognition of the rich sacred steel tradition will be carried on as well.
For additional information on the sacred steel tradition, check out the documentary Sacred Steel: The Steel Guitar Tradition of the House of God Churches (dir. by Robert Stone; Arhoolie Foundation, 2001).
Posted by Christopher Mulé
Editor’s note: this review is excerpted from a much longer article by the author.