In a sense, the sacred steel musical tradition is like one of those tribes living deep inside the Amazon jungle, almost wholly separate from the larger world. But practitioners of the style were in fact influenced by the outside world, and the rich tapestry of influences that inform the style make it wonderfully accessible, even to those outside the church where it began. One of the foremost exponents of sacred steel is south Florida-based group The Lee Boys; for nearly two decades the group has been venturing beyond House of God congregations, bringing its soul- and funk-influenced gospel music to a wider audience.
The last Lee Boys studio album was Testify, released by Warren Haynes’ Evil Teen label in 2012. A brand new CD, Live on the East Coast, captures the inspiring and musically incendiary style that is a Lee Boys live show. The new album is a bookend of sorts: The Lee Boys’ debut release, 2002’s It is No Secret, was also a live recording. But the contrast between the two records shows that while the group began with a rock-solid foundation, it has grown musically over the ensuing 17 years.
The sacred steel tradition came about when the Alabama church started in the early 1900s by “Mother Tate” (Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate) split into three distinct congregations. Two of those Pentecostal denominations built their church music around the pedal steel guitar rather than the more traditional organ. By the 1940s, church elders Willie and Troman Eason had cut nearly 20 recordings of their distinct brand of gospel music.
But the wider world knew little of sacred steel, and that was largely by design. Alvin Lee – band leader and electric guitarist for The Lee Boys – points out that his uncle, Bishop Lorenzo Harrison “was one of the founders [of sacred steel] along with Willie Eason. So it’s our heritage, and we knew all about it.” But the somewhat insular African-American Pentecostal church sought to keep the tradition for itself.
“I think it was just the fear of the unknown,” Lee says. There was concern over what would happen to the tradition if “the secular world was gonna get a hold of this music.” But Lee points to the origins of the style. “The persons who founded the church used to go out on the highways with some of the guys, playing in front of clubs.” So any purity was already a bit compromised, he suggests. “The essence kind of got lost in the mix.”
But the power of the music pushed at the confines of the church. Lee gives credit to Arhoolie Records and producer Robert Stone for helping bring sacred steel to the secular world. In 1997 the small, independent label released a compilation, Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Gutiar Music in Florida. That disc brought together 20 sides by the leading lights of the style – including Willie Eason, Sonny Treadway, Henry Nelson and Aubrey Ghent – and earned positive reviews. Stone himself would go on to produce many albums in the style, and has since written a book (2010’s Sacred Steel: Inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition) and directed a documentary film.
The floodgates soon opened. “Once the world got a glimpse of sacred steel,” says Lee, “it couldn’t be denied anymore.” Discovered by the larger music world at a Florida sacred steel convention, pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph soon found himself called upon as a guest artist on projects and recordings by such high-profile (and secular) artists as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Los Lobos, Dave Matthews Band and Buddy Guy. Today Robert Randolph and the Family Band is the most widely-known act working in the sacred steel idiom.
Alvin Lee has no doubts as to why sacred steel has so readily found a secular audience. “It was the next great thing to make people feel good,” he says. “It gets beyond one person saying, ‘I’m gonna preach [in a church] and then this music’s gonna back me up, and people are gonna feel good.’ Well, people wanna feel good with the same music in the clubs, at festivals, at schools, just all over.”
Today there are more than a half dozen well-known acts – both young and more established – playing original sacred steel music. “There’s a lot of us, “Lee says. “Robert, the Cameron Brothers, Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, A.J. Ghent. We all came from the same place; we grew up together playing in the church the same way.”
Lee was a deacon in the church; his immersion in sacred steel began at an early age and continued, informed by the work of those who came before him. But while the church itself may have been focused on keeping its traditions to itself, Lee and his brothers grew up absorbing musical influences from the world at large as well. He emphasizes that his greatest musical influence comes from the religious side. “Gospel artists – James Cleveland, Andrae Crouch, all the way up to Kirk Franklin – inspired me, along with our original House of God artists,” he says.
“But outside of that,” he says with a mischievous smile, “my brother Glenn and me, we liked the ‘80s. From Hall and Oates to Michael Jackson to Stevie Wonder, we were just so open.” The brothers took part in marching band at school, and Alvin says that “we would throw in the score from Fiddler on the Roof; we would intertwine it with our jam.”
And once The Lee Boys started performing, the band displayed even more influence from outside the church. “When our younger nephews like Little Al [bassist Alvin Cordy, Jr.] were coming up, they listened to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And when I was originally playing bass, I was listening to a lot of The Gap Band.”
For most listeners, the instrument at the heart of sacred steel – the pedal steel guitar – is most readily associated with country and western music. And Lee and his family grew up with a deep appreciation for country. “We were heavily into country,” he says. “We used to go to Nashville, Tennessee with our father, because that’s where our big [church] convention was. And we’d go to see Buddy Emmons.” A white country and jazz musician, Emmons would win the Academy of Country Music’s “Best Steel Guitarist” award nine times.
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