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Sacred Steel: The guitar gospel, according to the Campbell Brothers 

click to enlarge Keeping the steel in the family.
  • Keeping the steel in the family.
Keeping the steel in the family.
In a weird way, it's accurate to call the Campbell Brothers "church music," because, technically they play their tunes in a church, just as they've been doing since they were kids. But this isn't the church music of organs, autoharps and white-haired women singing falsetto with one hand raised, leading a drowsy congregation though a down-tempo hymn - this is pretty much rock music.

Chuck Campbell grew up in the House of God Church, a Pentecostal, predominately African-American denomination that shies away from the pipe organ, opting for the steel guitar to lift the spirits of the congregation, and get them moving their feet. This isn't a whining, yawning county Western slide guitar - the House of God sound, often referred to as "Sacred Steel," is more of a shouting, screaming, wailing manipulation of the instrument that, when accompanied by a band, is pretty hard not to dance to.

"It's very loud. Praise, worship and really getting after it has always been a part of our tradition," Campbell says, describing the church, which is well known for its focus on music and dancing.

Campbell has been playing pedal steel guitar since he was 12 years old. But, somewhat remarkably, it wasn't until 1998 that the Campbell Brothers band played outside of their Rush, N.Y., church. Now, the band plays their walloping gospel jams at festivals and shows all over the country, attracting crowds far beyond pure gospel enthusiasts.

"It's a weird thing. We've been embraced by the folk audiences and the jam band audiences and blues audiences - and we still get gospel audiences too. The dilemma is that the music sounds too bluesy a lot of times for gospel people, and it's too gospely for blues people," Campbell says.

Some blues and gospel diehards might have trouble with the Campbell Brothers' cross pollination, but the mainly-instrumental band is surprisingly accessible to the man-on-the-street music fan. Some will surely hear the steel guitars of Chuck and his brother Darick and hear a resemblance to Robert Randolph and the Family Band - but it's actually far more accurate to say that Randolph (who also learned his craft in the House of God Church) sounds like the Campbell Brothers, and not vice versa.

"I knew Robert since his birth, he would stay at our house, I'd stay at their house. It was almost like family," Campbell says of Randolph and his family, "His father sent me money to buy Robert his first steel [guitar] and he took to it like a fish to water."

While Randolph is probably the most well-known pedal steel player, at least in the mainstream, Campbell is truly the master of Sacred Steel - and that's not hyperbole. In 2004, Campbell was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts - one of the most esteemed awards for traditional and folk musicians. Campbell wasn't awarded the fellowship simply because he's a talented pedal steel player, but rather for the groundbreaking approach he's taken to revolutionizing the instrument.

Campbell is humbly proud of the award, yet seems to understand his impact on American music.

"The pedal steel was always looked at as an instrument that could only be used one way and that was in country Western. The steel itself is a national treasure and the type of music that we play really hits on a lot of different genres from American history," Campbell says.

He goes on to describe how the Sacred Steel style has transcended gospel music (Randolph's popularity being a perfect example) and is now starting to influence other types of popular music. That said, the Campbell Brothers are sticking to what works. While it's not always the easiest style to classify, it's easy to get down to. And that seems to be what Chuck and his family are out to do - whether it's in their church or in Sisters, Oregon, where they play Sunday at a fundraising event for the Sisters Folk Festival.

"Sacred steel really strives to touch the audience and really get them energized and moving. A lot of people say - 'that's pure rock' - and we heard that in church a lot. But hey, did it move the congregation or not?" Campbell says.

The Campbell Brothers, Christopher Williams

6:30pm. Sunday, Jan 27. Five Pine Lodge and Concert Series. 1021 Desperado Trail, Sisters. $15/adults, $10/students. Call 549-4979 or visit for tickets.


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