The Sacred Steel Interviews, Part I:Darick & Chuck Campbell
Sometimes, in order to better understand what’s going on in the present, you need to delve a little into the past. In 2002, I contacted Jim Markel, Robert Randolph’s co-manager, to discuss writing a story about Robert and the sacred steel tradition. Randolph had certainly gotten his fair share of ink since arriving on the jamband scene in New York City in 2000, but I felt that no one had really adequately explained the history of the sacred steel tradition dating back to when Willie Eason first started playing lap steel guitar in the House of God church in the 1950s.
Over the course of two months, I ate, breathed and slept sacred steel music. I listened to all the albums available from Arhoolie Records and conducted interviews with five players Randolph, Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent and Darick and Chuck Campbell. I finished the project the following spring when I was given the opportunity to photograph the Campbell Brothers playing with Cooke and Ghent at the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
This is the first of a two-part series. Next month, we’ll feature interviews with Calvin Cooke and Aubrey Ghent. Enjoy.
AT: What is your first musical memory?
Chuck Campbell: My first memory of music was definitely in the church and the Hawaiian guitar. I don’t know who it was that was playing, but my first memory of music in the church was from Nashville, where my father was going to school. He was in college as a junior minister down there. The Hawaiian steel guitar was the single biggest influence in my life, musically.
I heard it at a local service down there, and I also heard it at our national convention in Nashville. In fact, my first memory of going to the national convention was when I was three or four years old. My fondest memory of that is hearing the steel guitar all the way outside church. I was standing outside the building and heard this beautiful music coming from inside. I have no idea who was playing.
AT: How did you get started with sacred steel music?
Chuck: My introduction to the music came through my father, who bought me a six-string Gibson lap steel. It was Christmas 1968, and I was eleven-years old. It was the best Christmas I ever had. I couldn’t believe I had gotten a steel guitar, because it was always something I wanted to try and do. It was one of those things that I went at it, and just kept at it. I was eleven at the time, and moved over to the pedal steel when I was sixteen. About 1973.
Darick Campbell: My introduction came much later, in 1980. Chuck was playing in our local church, and he had a job that forced him to work nights. Since he was working nights, we didn’t have anyone to play steel guitar. We had bass and drums, but no steel guitar. I thought to myself that maybe I could learn to play. My first guitar was a Fender eight-string with five pedals. It was black, orange and yellow. It was a nice guitar. I learned the fram, which is when you strum across all the strings, and the three position changes, from the first to the fifth fret to the seventh fret, from listening to Chuck and some of the other guys. That’s how I got into it. Chuck couldn’t make the night services during the week.
AT: Who was the first steel player you saw?
Chuck: The first guy to play in our local services was a guy named Elder Luther Robinson. He still plays, but he never got to a national level with our church. He started me out, and then our church started inviting Calvin Cooke and his cousin, Charles Flinnery, over for big events and banquets. That was my first introduction to our national players where they gave me hands-on lessons.
AT: So Calvin Cooke was your mentor?
Chuck: Our big influence was Calvin at the time. Everyone wanted to play like Calvin. Of course, the thing with the steel guitar is, you never play like the guy you’re trying to sound like. Everyone ends up with your own kind of style. But the big influence was Calvin.
At the top of all this sacred steel tradition is a guy we all listened to on the radio. He was some Hawaiian guy from Philadelphia, but no one really knows his name. After that, it was Troman Eason and his younger brother, Willie Eason. Because he had grown so much in popularity, Willie left the church and was in and out of the church as a player. He played on street corners and other places outside the church. Our church was so strict at the time that if you played anywhere outside the church, even other churches, you weren’t allowed to play any more.
AT: When was the first time you played in public?
Chuck: For most sacred steel players, it’s a trial by fire. You go to church and just jump in the pool. My first experience playing in church was March 1969, just after I had gotten my lap steel that Christmas. I went to church and played, and was told to take it home because I was messing up the services. (Laughs) They told me to take it home, no problem, that I should stop playing during church. Just stop. (Laughs)
AT: I heard a great story about you running into Lloyd Green, one of the great country music pedal steel players, in Nashville. Tell me about it.
Chuck: What happened was I ran into Bobby Seymour, who has a Steel Guitar World in Nashville. I needed some parts from my guitar, so I went over to his shop. I had called beforehand, and he told me to just go on in and get what I needed, that he’d be in later. So, I went down there and got the part, and sat down to play a little. Bobby walked in, looked at me playing, turned around to get back to what he was doing, and did a double take. He looked at me and said, "I hope I don’t offend you, but I don’t see many people of your persuasion playing the pedal steel guitar." I told him there was a whole slew of us who play, and said I’d invite them down to his shop when it was time for the national convention.
So I brought some of the guys down to Bobby’s shop, and he took one listen to some of these guys and said, "I’m going to have Lloyd Green down." We all were like, "You go ahead and invite Lloyd Green down." Lloyd Green came down and met Calvin and me. He set up his pedal steel and played. As steel players, we all wanted to play like those old country western guys. We could never play like those guys. To see him play, it made our mouths water, the whole nine yards. We were impressed, but by the same token, we wanted to have it and wanted to take it with us. We got a chance to play for him, and Lloyd called Calvin the "BB King of the steel guitar." Both Lloyd and Bobby said that everyone in Nashville had learned to play like the country guys, but no one played like us. They told us to keep doing what we were doing, and that was the first time we ever had the ok from the country-western players.
AT: Who was the first player to bring the pedal steel into the church?
Chuck: I wasn’t the first one to bring the pedal steel to the House of God church. There were a few guys who did it as well, but I’m given credit for being the guy who brought it into our style. I was one of the first who implemented it into our style of playing.
There were two things that made me go that way. The first thing was a trip to Shot Jackson’s shop in Nashville with my father in 1972. They made Showbud steels at Shot’s store. We went in there, and there was this guy playing the steel who was cursing about an Emmons because he wanted a Showbud. My father asked him if he could play and the guy said he’d play something. He took out a whiskey bottle with his bar hand and put up the bottle to drink out of it while he played with the pedals. He started playing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" while he was drinking the whiskey. It was the prettiest version of the song my father or I had ever heard, and we couldn’t believe this guy could play that well, while drinking whiskey. The guy ended up being one of the greatest legends of the pedal steel. His name was Jimmy Day, but I didn’t know it at the time. He asked me to play for him after he was done, but I so shaken that I couldn’t hold the bar. From that day on, I had to have a pedal steel.
The other thing that made me gravitate towards it was the return of Henry Nelson. He had come back to the church after many years, and everyone who was playing around that time had a straight tuning of E, B, G#, or some version of that. It basically translates to a 1, 5 and a 3. Either they had the first, second or third string as the one. Calvin played in one version, Ted Beard played another one and Henry Nelson played in a different one from the other two. Since these guys were my main influences, I tried to play like them in the services. So I thought, "Hey, I can do that with a pedal steel by just stepping on the pedals and change the tuning on the fly." That was my main influence on the music- changing styles between these guys through changing the tuning using the pedal steel.
Darick: Chuck also played with the choir. He’d get the chords from the organ and keyboard players, and then play along with the choir. It sounded like someone was singing when he played.
Chuck: That actually came after the fact, because I didn’t realize that I’d be able to do that when I got the steel. That was actually part of the growth process and is probably the reason why I got into the same category of player with guys like Calvin, Ted and Henry Nelson. The pedal steel is really the only way I’m in there with those guys.
AT: Darick, tell me about your guitar. Do you have a pedal steel?
Darick: I have a pedal steel. Actually, it’s Chuck’s old GFI.
Chuck: There’s a story behind this one, Andy. I’ll give it to you when he’s done.
Darick: I play pedal as well. But due to the fact that the way the group is configured, we felt the lap steel needed to be in there. I feel comfortable on both instruments, but there are definitely limitations with the lap steel because you have to retune to get different chords or different scales. But it’s lighter, and I don’t have as much to set up. Or to take down. I just have to take the legs off, and I’m gone. (Laughs)
Chuck: Come on, Darick. Tell him the real story. This is the real story behind why Darick played the lap. I was playing the pedal steel, and I had my style. One of the things about sacred steel music is that everyone comes up with their own individual style. When Darick first started playing, he sounded a lot like Henry Nelson. You have to understand what was happening: Aubrey Ghent was the big man down South, and I was the big man up north in our peer group. Darick comes along and starts playing like Henry Nelson in our services, with a little of Ted Beard as well. I’m playing more like Calvin Cooke, completely. And I’m started to do some wild stuff with different effects pedals, I’m bringing the whole nine yards. And I’m getting accused of being rock n roll. And then this guy comes in with the lap, and they start saying he’s playing real church, sacred music. Next thing I know, I can’t even play in my local church services- they want to hear Darick. (Laughs) What made it so bad was this: since he came in with just a lap steel, with basically just a piece of wood and some strings, and I had this big double-neck ten string. The expectations for him, just by what he was playing on, were definitely lower. And this guy comes and is playing some of the same things I’m doing on my rig. He was blowing me away. It was really a hard time for me. (Laughs) He won’t tell you that story.
AT: One thing I’ve noticed about the House of God church and sacred steel music is that so many players are related, either by blood or marriage. Is that just a coincidence or is this a familial tradition?
Chuck: It’s almost part of the culture. Before Arhoolie and Bob Stone put out those CDs, we didn’t really talk about what was going on and being played in the church. None of us ever felt that the secular world would accept church music. We were all trying to do stuff like Kirk Franklin, Edwin Hawkins and that kind of stuff when we put it out to the public. The other thing is, the way we praise God doesn’t always look very sophisticated. So we didn’t really talk about it with friends. The only people you told about coming to the church were your best friends and family. That’s why it’s more family-oriented and there hasn’t been a lot of growth in the church, membership-wise. We were considered holy-rollers, and it’s sometimes associated with ignorance or uneducated. That’s changed a lot, and it’s been very enlightening to us that this music has been accepted and people have longed for the rootsy part and passion that we bring to the table.
We still don’t believe it, really. We’ve played Europe with a lot of groups that are much larger than we are. We can’t believe it. I’d love to have a formula to follow, and just keep doing that. But we just do what we do in church.
Darick: Every church that is a House of God church has a steel guitar as opposed to an organ. Most black churches have organs, but we have the steel guitar. Most ministers either try to play, or they buy one for their sons to play in the services. That’s why you find a lot of family-related players in the tradition.
Chuck: Same thing happened with Troman and Willie. Most of us had younger brothers that snuck around behind us and learned to play. The next thing you know, they’ve become musicians and are just as good as you. And everybody starts on the drums, mostly.
AT: How is the music different when you play in the church then when you play a festival show?
Darick: I don’t think it is. It’s about different levels though.
Chuck: The only difference is in church, a lot of times the people will bring it. In the church, there are different things that can spark it. A good sermon can spark it or a good singer. Or a good prayer that will spark that kind of spirit. We relate playing festivals a lot of times to being in church. People go to festivals because they’re trying to get away from the hustle and bustle of the world. They’re trying to find a little peace, get outside and back to nature, or back to community and friends. If it’s a good festival, you don’t have to work on bringing it as a much. The spirit is already there.
Darick: I think it has a lot to do with how people receive it and enjoying the music. If they’re really getting into it, and they’re yelling and dancing, it takes it to a different level.
Chuck: Bonnaroo is a perfect example. That festival was so energized, you could have gotten up there and played "Yankee Doodle" and the place would have gone nuts. It was a really nice place to play.
Darick: It made me want to play. It takes you to that level, as a player, that’s like, "Let me see what else I can give them."
Chuck: Coming from a religious background, we can relate to people who like to go outside, look at the mountains and the lay of the landscape. When you get the chance to meet different musicians from all different kinds of backgrounds and cultures, you just have to give it up to God. Even if you don’t believe in it, you’ve got to give it up to some higher order. So that’s what happens with us.
AT: What has been one of your most memorable experiences playing outside the church?
Chuck: One of our biggest experiences playing outside the church was at the Folk Alliance in Memphis in 1998. It just so happened that Rufus Thomas was there too. So they gave us the big stage, where everyone at the convention was eating and gathering for awards. They gave an award to Muddy Waters that night. So we played there, and the crowd went berserk. And we just did what we do in church. Rufus Thomas came up to us and said, "I gotta tell you guys, you’re the real thing. You’re going places and you made me proud." That was our really first big gig. We haven’t gotten over it since.
AT: Talk to me a little bit about your decision to play outside the church. Much has been made about you guys and a few other players stepping outside the church and playing this music in non-religious settings.
Chuck: There were two things at work there: until the 90s, we didn’t visit Jewel and Jewel didn’t visit us (Chuck and Darick play in the Keith Dominion churches of the House of God church). It was only one thing worse playing rock n roll in the Keith Dominion, and that was playing Jewel Dominion. That was the worst. I think it was the same way with the Jewel side. Around 1990, both of our national leaders died, and we had new leaders. They both decided to get together, so we all started visiting the other churches. The next step was when the sacred steel thing broke in Florida, and so we started playing coffeehouses and gigs like the Folk Alliance to get out on the secular music scene. People from the church could go to it, because it wasn’t like playing in a bar or anything of that nature.
There are also different thresholds for different people. We’re not ministers, so we don’t have as high a threshold as someone like Rev. Aubrey Ghent. Guys like Robert Randolph have yet to profess being born again, so he has a lesser threshold than we do. We got the backing of the church, mainly because they liked the way Arhoolie presented the music. The church is kind of blown away because they see us on TV or on a special documentary or something. And we’re not playing blues- we’re playing church music. Some people even view it as evangelizing.
AT: How did someone like your father, who is a minister, react?
Darick: In the beginning, our father didn’t have as much understanding about it as he does now.
Chuck: He was more lukewarm, but he always supported us in anything we did. When we recorded "Sacred Steel Live", which broke Calvin, Ted Beard and Robert, it was recorded at our father’s church in Rush. He’s the one who set that up. He was always inviting to Bob Stone and Arhoolie, and we couldn’t have done all this without him. No way. The church has helped us a lot with this stuff, and been very good to us. Every once in a while, we do get questioned, but for the most part, we have a lot of support. We’re always looking to try and do our best, and make the church proud. We were really surprised at how we were received at Bonnaroo- they just told us to do what we normally do, and we’ve been happy to hear how people have reacted so positively, both inside the church and outside the church.
AT: When I spent some time with Robert recently, he mentioned that you guys are friends with his father.
Chuck: Robert’s another case of his father wanting to play and giving it to his son. His father and I are peers, and became best friends through seeing each other at the national conventions. In fact, his father is one of the people that gave me a really big boost when I played at the convention. He got the young people together to sit on the front seat, and made sure the service went well. His father was a great basketball player, and wanted to learn the instrument. He had me go out and buy a steel, and said he was going to give it to Robert. I think part of him really wanted to play, but Robert took it and just took it to another level.
AT: How are the steel players perceived in your church? What status do they carry with the congregation?
Chuck: The musicians in our church, especially the steel players, are right up there with the overseerer and bishop as far as fame and popularity. The first time I met Calvin Cooke, I couldn’t believe it. About a year later, I got to hang a little bit with Calvin, because he asked me to play for him in my second year as a drummer. I couldn’t believe that he would ask me to play for him. What kills me is, I have younger guys who come up to me now, and they have the same kind of reverence. We have a really hard time handling that because we’re still trying to play like the greats before us. As much as I’ve tried, I still can’t play like Calvin. I can do some things that are beyond Calvin, but it’s different.
No one in our church looks at any of us in the same light as Willie Eason. I don’t care where you go, where you’ve been or what you do. We had a service about a month ago here, and there was a lady from Philadelphia. She had shouted and hollered for about two hours straight during the entire service. And afterwards, she came up and was like, "You know what, you guys are the best I’ve ever heard, besides Willie Eason. You guys keep on and one day, you’ll be able to play like Willie." We can understand how they feel though. There’s no way anyone is going to be better than this guy to some people. Once you reach a certain maturity level within the church, you’re not going to be honored in the same light as the first guy somebody heard and fell in love with. There are people in Florida that love Aubrey Ghent, and we’ll never be as good as Aubrey is for those people. Same way in the North with Henry Nelson with some people. You could play the same notes in the same song, and you’re not going to play it as well as a guy they really love.
There’s always a comparison going on. Every place you go, wherever you play. You’ve got the young guns that play faster and a little different than the older guys, and people tell them they’re the best. Because I had the same happen to me. People told me that I was better than Calvin, or better than Ted. And you just shake your head and say, "Ok." Then you have the older people telling the older players, "Hey, these young guys don’t know what they’re doing." And then you have the guys who say, "Hey, have any of you guys made the money that Willie Eason made? Do you have a new Cadillac every year like Willie? Especially when Jim Crow was around? Can any of you guys do that?"
AT: I guess everyone wants to compare the present players to the pioneers.
Chuck: The Willie Eason stories are really off the hook. It’s crazy. My favorite story about Willie is that not only could he make his lap steel "talk", but he’d let it walk too. What happened was, Willie was playing it, and it started talking, right? It not only sang, but it talked too. There’s a difference between singing and talking. And then Willie Eason left, and everyone looked at the guitar on the floor, and it moved. Now, when a bishop tell this kind of story, it’s like, "You guys aren’t supposed to be telling stories like that." Then they’ll get someone else over, and they’ll say, "Yeah, it happened all the time. When you guys get that good, you’ll be able to do things that no one else can do."
AT: Talk to me about the importance of this music and this tradition in your own lives.
Chuck: It was my introduction to God, if you will. I was really drawn into the church mainly through the music. That may sound bad to the traditionalists, because you should be drawn by the Word. But the music actually made me listen to the Word. What I’ve learned from the steel has helped me to be successful in every aspect of my life, from learning trades to being successful in a working environment. That’s what it’s meant to me. When you hear us play, you’re actually hearing the essence of our being.
Darick: First of all, it’s an honor and a privilege to be blessed to have the fortune and talent to be a part of this tradition. I heard this music growing up as a kind, whether it was in the church, or on tapes. My father always had reel-to-reels, eight-track cassettes and video of all these guys playing this music. To see the reaction of the people while they were playing the service, it’s a really unbelievable feeling, man. As far as the religious aspects of it, it helps keep me in the right frame of mind as far as the church goes. I have friends and family who aren’t in the church, and I really think that sacred steel music was the reason why I was able to remain in the church for so many years. I thank God every day that he allows me to play this music, because through it, I really feel closer to Him.
AT: What do you see coming down the line for this music in the next few years? How will it change?
Chuck: I can’t imagine. I’m at the point that Willie Eason was at when he first saw us play. I still can’t believe some of the stuff he and Lorenzo Harrison were doing back in the 50s. And so, I’m looking at some of these younger guys, and they’re taking it to a whole other level too. There are a whole bunch of younger guys that can play, sing and do everything, so there’s this new generation that is looking to take this music beyond the church and playing outside the church as a career move. Robert has been responsible for that too. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know that it’ll be good. These kids coming along now are the sons and daughters of my friends. I remember when some of these guys were babies, and now they’ve got guitars, basses and drums, and they’re forming groups. And they’re bringing all their own musical influences, from hip-hop to r&b to rock n roll.
Darick: You got kids who are 10 years old that have no problem getting up there and playing in front of everybody. It’s like how it was with drums when I was a kid- everyone wanted to play the drums. Now, everyone wants to play the steel, and most of them can play faster than us. I’ve already accepted the fact that we’re getting older- it’s like an escalator. There’s no way to stay down at the bottom, and one day, you’ll get to the top and be pushed off.
AT: Last question Robert has obviously made a big splash on the music scene. What are your thoughts on him as a player and a representative of the sacred steel tradition?
Darick: He’s a phenomenal player, man. When I first heard him, he was beginning to work on the speed pick thing and then the next time I heard him at the dedication of my father’s church in 1998 for the Sacred Steel Live CD and video, I was floored. I couldn’t believe how advanced he’d gotten. He’s young, not that I’m old, but he’s got more durability to really make a run at it, like he’s done. I wish him nothing but great fortune and success, because the bottom line is, he’s really doing a job for all of us in getting the music out there. I think he’s doing a great job.
Chuck: I second what Darick has said, and I’ll add this. We tell the people at home in church to pray for him while he’s out on the road. There are some people out there in the music industry…. we’ve always looked at it as a lottery. But the reality is that it’s a job. That doesn’t just go for Robert- we all grew up around Marcus and Danyel too. Danyel is a monster musician, man. He can play a mean guitar. And Marcus is a great steel player too. In fact, Robert has the same problem in his church with Marcus that I had with Darick. Marcus plays more traditionally, and it’s all about moving people, so people really like his style.
One of the things that the Campbell Brothers found out was that the world is too big for just one sacred steel group. We want to share this music, so we’ve encouraged a lot of people to do what they’re doing, including them. And they’re more groups coming up behind them. But Robert and the Family Band is at the forefront of making this music popular and introducing it to the mainstream. We look for him to be a superstar.