The Curmudgeon: A Brief History of American Music’s Most Evocative Instrument

The steel guitar's greatest achievements happened on country records, but its triumphs can now be found everywhere.

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The Curmudgeon: A Brief History of American Music’s Most Evocative Instrument

In 2000, I traveled to the annual National Assembly for the Keith Dominion of the House of God Church. In mid-June every year, this black-Pentecostal denomination holds its General Assembly in Nashville—10 days of meetings, preaching and a whole lot of steel guitar.

The church services in the big brick building featured a vigorous give-and-take between the preacher in the pulpit and the musicians down below. At first it sounded like any African-American liturgy, but suddenly a sustained cry cut through the usual organ, guitar and drums. It was Chuck Campbell’s pedal steel guitar, and as he slid his silver bar across the strings while manipulating the pedals and levers with his feet and knees, Campbell created a keening, wordless wail that sounded like a worshipper in the grip of ecstasy.

He was playing the same instrument that had been used a few miles away on Music Row for countless country-music recordings, but he was using it in a completely different way: with the syncopation of the blues and the note-bending testifying of gospel. The country musicians had caught wind of what these so-called “Sacred Steel” players were up to, and some of the more adventurous country pickers had arranged a summit meeting.

The steel guitar didn’t start in country music; it was invented by Joseph Kekuku in Hawaii in the 1890s by raising the strings on a Spanish acoustic guitar and sliding a bread knife across the strings. The strange sound took the islands by storm, and when the fad died out elsewhere in the 1930s, it lingered on in two pockets: Texas hillbilly dance bands and the House of God Church.

Several hours later, after the church service had finally wound down, Campbell, his two siblings in the Campbell Brothers band and Sacred Steel veteran Calvin Cooke drove over to Soundcheck, a warehouse-sized rehearsal studio on the east bank of the Cumberland River. There they found Bruce Bouton, Garth Brooks’s steel guitarist; Tony Paoletta, Patty Loveless’s steel guitarist, and Dan Tyack, formerly the steel guitarist for Asleep at the Wheel.

After a few warm hellos, they got right to the business at hand—a jam session where they could trade licks across the divides of race, religion and genre. The Sacred Steel players began with single-note runs from church, and the Music Row players began with chordal riffs from the country songbook, but everyone soon found common ground in the blues. Campbell and Bouton supplied some of the hottest licks—at least until a skinny, unrecorded, 19-year-old unknown from a New Jersey House of God Church sat down behind a pedal steel to play faster and wilder than anyone onstage.

Watch Robert Randolph perform “I Need More Love” at Paste Studio in January:

His name was Robert Randolph, and two years later he would be a jam-band star with a contract from Warner Bros. He proved that Sacred Steel could flourish beyond the sanctuary and that the pedal steel guitar might be embraced outside country music. Sixteen years later, many players have walked through the door Randolph opened, and one can hear steel guitar in all manner of surprising places.

Both Randolph’s 2017 album, Got Soul,, and this year’s fiery debut album from the Lee Boys’ Roosevelt Collier, Exit 16,, give the Sacred Steel sound more of an R&B tilt. Blue Steel, the new recording from steel whiz Joe Goldmark, applies his country training to rock and blues repertoire, while the duo known as Steelism does the same for rock and spaghetti-western music on last year’s Ism. Brian Dumont, the leader of the Steel Jazz Trio, features the instrument in a swinging jazz setting on the group’s new album, Black Licorice.

Steel guitarist Greg Leisz, who first made his name playing on Americana records from Dave Alvin, Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt, has more recently been playing on progressive-jazz albums by Charles Lloyd and Bill Frisell. The highlight of the Mary Halvorson Octet’s 2016 avant-garde jazz album, Away with You, was the dialogue between the leader’s archtop guitar and Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel. The Campbell Brothers have been touring a live rearrangement of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in recent years. Bob Dylan’s three-CD celebration of the American Songbook, 2017’s Triplicate, prominently features Donnie Herron’s pedal steel, an instrument not usually associated with Frank Sinatra’s songs.

Read: Curmudgeon: The Curmudgeon: The Unsung Heroes Behind Every Great Rock Song

It should be no surprise that an instrument that has been so successful in country music should be equally effective in other genres. The electrified, table-like pedal steel can produce full guitar chords but also sustain legato lines like a fiddle—only with more fullness of sound. The ease of moving the silver cylinder across its strings enables the musician to play very fast while keeping the notes connected. And those sliding and bending notes give the instrument a vocal quality that allows it to sound as if it were sobbing, wailing or even laughing.

The steel guitar didn’t start in country music; it was invented by Joseph Kekuku in Hawaii in the 1890s by raising the strings on a Spanish acoustic guitar and sliding a bread knife (or, he sometimes claimed, a railroad spike) across the strings. The strange sound took the islands by storm and soon Kekuku traveled to the United States (this was before Hawaii was a state), launching a craze for “Hawaiian guitar,” as it was known here. It was featured in a 1912 Broadway show, Birds of Paradise, starring Kekuku.

When the fad died out elsewhere in the 1930s, however, it lingered on in two pockets: Texas hillbilly dance bands and in the House of God Church. Because the acoustic steel guitar couldn’t be heard in a band with drums and horns, an electrified version was created, and Bob Dunn used it with Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies to launch the Western swing movement, soon superseded by Leon McAuliffe with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s Willie Eason started playing the new-fangled instrument in his local House of God church, and the response was so enthusiastic that steel guitar soon became the center of the church’s worship music.

The steel guitar, whether played in the musician’s lap or atop table legs, was exciting but harmonically limited, because it was hard to play different chords with a single cylinder laid across the strings. Country musicians solved the problem by adding pedals and levers to the table steel that allowed them to change the pitch of individual strings, greatly expanding the chordal possibilities. When Bud Isaacs played an early pedal steel on Webb Pierce’s 1956 hit “Slowly,” the sound was so appealing that nearly every act in Nashville wanted the pedal steel on their records too. Fifteen years later Chuck Campbell became the first House of God musician to master the pedal steel. Because of its versatility, the pedal steel is now the version used by the most ambitious steel guitarists.

Randolph begins his latest album not with his trademark single-note phrases but with a chicken-scratch rhythm riff before going off on pinball melodic tangents between vocal lines. By the time that first song, “Got Soul,” segues into “She Got Soul,” Randolph’s tangents have evolved into wordless vocal sounds that seem to create a duet with guest vocalist Anthony Hamilton. It’s this emphasis on groove and simulated singing that separated Sacred Steel from country steel, and it’s the lusty funk of that groove that separates Randolph’s secular career from his church origins.

Watch Robert Randolph perform “Got Soul” at the Paste Studio in January:

Just as Randolph came up emulating Chuck Campbell, Florida’s Roosevelt Collier was inspired by Randolph. Collier was the lead soloist in the Lee Boys, an R&B/Sacred Steel group that forged a surprising but fruitful alliance with bluegrass’s Del McCoury Band. On Exit 16, his first solo project, Collier uses a stripped-down quartet and an all-instrumental format to reveal that he owes as much to Jimi Hendrix as to Randolph. Not content to play predictable blues changes, Collier keeps looking for the unexpected note, the unexpected chord—and when he finds it, he twists it with wah-wah and similar effects. Snarky Puppy’s Michael League produced the sessions and played bass.

Like other Sacred Steel players, Randolph readily admits to country-music influences, even if they’re buried beneath the blues. He even namedrops Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn on the title track from his new disc. Most of today’s non-Sacred Steel guitarists started out in country music, but many of them have branched out from there in all directions. Susan Alcorn, for example, began in East Texas honky-tonks before gravitating to avant-garde jazz. Similarly, Greg Leisz played in Southern California country-rock bands before becoming the first-call steel guitarist for top singer-songwriters and jazz bands.

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Joe Goldmark played in Bay Area country bands before setting out to prove that his instrument could be applied to almost any repertoire. For more than two decades, he has recorded steel guitar arrangements of songs by everyone from the Grateful Dead to Otis Redding, from Frank Zappa to Elvis Presley. On his new album, he draws from B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Lefty Frizzell, Graham Parker and Bob Marley. Goldmark is not much of a singer, but he brings in two friends to add enjoyable vocals to half the tracks. He thus evokes the more ecumenical era of the 1960s, when all genres could be heard on AM top-40 radio, and the bands at local dance halls were expected to play all of them. Thus an R&B band would add saxophone to country hits, and a hillbilly band like Goldmark’s would add steel guitar to soul numbers. Songs took on a different personality in these transformations, and Goldmark is performing the same alchemy today. When he adds steel fills to Rufus Thomas’s 1964 hit, “All Night Worker,” the country-music vocabulary attaches to the Memphis soul to create something that’s different from both sources.

Steelism is the duo of Ohio guitarist Jeremy Fetzer and English steel player Spencer Cullum. They compose most of their material, incorporating rock and pop materials into their twangy playing. It’s as if they were creating the soundtrack for an imaginary Quentin Tarantino movie, loading them up with Dick Dale-like reverb till they sound like someone’s fever dream of a California beach shack full of surfers, gangsters and oil-rig cowboys.

Watch Steelism perform the theme from ‘The Godfather’ at Paste Studio in July 2017:

If you want your assumptions about pedal steel guitar blown up, listen to any of the albums mentioned above. Or track down the Campbell Brothers’ Can You Feel It?, produced by an admiring John Medeski. Or Alcorn’s Soledad, exquisite arrangements of Astor Piazzolla tangos for pedal steel. Or Leisz’s duets with Bill Frisell as bandmates on Charles Lloyd & the Marvels’ I Long To See You. Or Secular Steel, a compilation of tracks by such outsider steel guitarists as Alcorn, her former collaborator Eugene Chadbourne, Wilco’s Nels Cline, Asleep at the Wheel’s Lucky Oceans and album curator Elliot Sharp.

You won’t be sorry. The steel guitar is a tremendously evocative instrument, able to moan and murmur, whisper and yelp, scratch and soar. While many of its greatest achievements transpired on country records, its triumphs can now be found everywhere.

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