With Sunday School class finished, Elder Tripholia Brinson of the House of God church allows her parishioners a short break before the worship service begins. It's a welcome interval. Lesson books are set aside, the front doors of the small, concrete-block building in south Apopka are pushed open, and kids in their best dress flee otherwise stern glances to race outside into the late-morning sun.
Elton Noble, though, has work to do. Moving into place at the front of the red-carpeted sanctuary, he pulls his steel guitar from its case and attaches first one, then another of the four legs that support it, creating a sort of sitting podium that, here in this humble setting, is as prominent as the pulpit behind it. For while the pastor directs the worship, it is the steel guitar that, for the next two hours, will drive the devotion to its celebratory peaks.
The service starts with song. Immediately someone whips out a tambourine. Others produce and shake bells. Claps keep time with two female singers, whose lead Noble follows through a seemingly spontaneous string of praise songs. Backed by drums, Noble's dominant sound is ebullient and joyous -- and then, on the fourth song, his guitar abruptly steals the lead vocal and takes over, dipping, moaning, soaring as the clappings gets louder and the arms reach higher.
"The congregation is your best teacher," he says later. "When you see the service accelerating, you accelerate also."
The moment indeed belongs to Noble. But it does not reach fever pitch. Not yet. Only the Holy Spirit can decide that.
"Once the Holy Spirit comes in, that's it," Noble says, grinning. "It's pretty much over."
Born out of musical ministry, the sound dubbed only recently as "sacred steel" is itself accelerating -- beyond the mostly rural black communities where it took root; beyond the Pentecostal Christian church that has harbored and protected it; beyond the confines of vernacular artistry to mainstream acclaim.
That phenomenon also is rooted in Florida, where state-funded folklorist Bob Stone first stumbled upon the music in 1992 and soon christened it with its now-familiar name.
Stone went knocking on doors and eventually oversaw recordings that, by most accounts, captured for the first time the unrestrained energy of the steel players in their natural setting. He shared it with a tiny but influential California-based record label, Arhoolie, whose newest disc -- the sixth in the series -- compiles live cuts from the first "sacred steel" convention, organized by House of God players and held last spring at Rollins College. And it's Florida to which that gathering returned March 30-31, to celebrate the music's origins even as it tugs it in other directions.
"I don't mind the word 'discovery' being used in this instance," says Chuck Campbell, 43, a steel player and member of the renowned Campbell Brothers. "To be honest with you, we were more or less like a Jurassic Park. It was taboo, or almost against the rules, to play at other churches. Even other African-American churches. So we stayed within the House of God, period."
Campbell's father is a House of God bishop, overseeing a district that includes churches in Jacksonville, Palatka and Crescent City, Fla. "Music, we always say, is the next best thing to heaven," Bishop Charles E. Campbell says in a new documentary video, "Sacred Steel: The Steel Guitar Tradition of the House of God Churches," written and directed by Stone and produced by the Arhoolie Foundation. "If you ever want to have some glimpse of what heaven's about, you need to hear the heavenly sounds."
Chuck Campbell knows the importance of those words. He believes the opportunities sent his way offer a chance to evangelize through the music. A humble field worker for a public utility in Rochester, N.Y. ("When you smell gas at your house, I'm the guy that comes out"), Campbell is the first to marvel at the virtually overnight prominence of his playing.
He and his brothers -- Darick, 34; Phil, 38; and Phil's son, Carlton, 18, on drums -- have played Europe as well as concerts from the Hollywood Bowl to last weekend's Miles Davis jazz festival in New York City. Campbell recalls looking up during one Sunday service at his home church to see drummer Steve Gadd, who has played with Paul Simon and is currently on tour with Eric Clapton. "He says Eric Clapton wants to come to church," says Campbell. Last June, he even spent a week in front of movie cameras playing in a church scene for an upcoming Whoopi Goldberg film, "Kingdom Come."
"The director asked me, 'Did you ever think when you were playing in the church that it would get you on the set with Whoopi Goldberg, Toni Braxton, LL Cool J, Viveca Foxx, Jada Pinkett-Smith ...?' I looked at him, and my first thought was to get religious and say, 'H no,'" he laughs. "I just said, 'I can't believe it, man.' ... They wanted all three of us, but it was the end of shooting so they opted for the guy with the biggest guitar."
"The audience is growing nationally and internationally," says Elder Aubrey Ghent -- like Campbell, one of the revered names among House of God steel players. "France thinks the music is phenomenal. Also in Germany. Also in England." As another of the newfound celebrities among the non-church audience, Ghent played the Berlin jazz festival last Novem-ber, though he found a previous invitation -- for the Blues to Bop Festival in Lugano, Switzerland -- especially unexpected. "Thank goodness they recognized that it was a gospel-oriented segment, and they knew that that's what we were going to do," he says. "And actually there was a couple of other gospel groups, so we didn't feel like we were all alone. But the audience did find it to be very unique."
Still, consider that rocket ride in another context: While Arhoolie's "sacred steel" CDs are among the independent label's top sellers, the most popular have sold no more than about 15,000 copies. That means whatever the artists' reach outside the church, they still are the darlings of a select secular audience -- so far, at least.
"I don't really know firsthand what the reaction in the churches has been to our taking away their musicians," says Chris Strachwitz, Arhoolie's founder; with his mission to "promote true vernacular music," it's those original traditions that Strachwitz hopes most to preserve.
The Campbell Brothers in particular, he says, have "been able to convey what they do in church on a secular stage. ... Unfortunately, so many of our authentic traditions in this country are constantly changing and evolving, especially the African-American traditions. I find that kind of sad in a way. So many youngsters have no knowledge of those traditions. Perhaps it's a way to survive in this fierce world, not to care about the past. But I think there's lots to be gained by knowing about your past."
Says Ghent, who lived in Fort Pierce before recently moving to Nashville, the House of God's base: "The elders of the church are trying to make sure that it doesn't become too common. It's good to spread your wings, but they want you to keep in mind that you're still working for a higher power, a higher source, and the music is supposed to be kept on a sacred church level. By no means do they want the little exposure that we do get to cause it to be blown out of proportion, but I think they want to make sure that it's going to remain on a sacred level. We can't express that too much. Myself being one of the elders of the church, I know that's where they are going."
Yet he, too, recognizes that there's a ministry at work on a grand scale. "That's always important to us, to kind of evangelize the music, to get it to wider audiences," he says. "Though it has so long been, I guess, sheltered, the time and the age has come within this particular era to display the hidden talent that has been in the House of God for decades.
"It's spreading because it's different than country or bluegrass steel playing. It's a combination of spirit-filled and energy-filled. It will remind you of, I guess some would say, a type of swing music, and that's what makes it so unique. Some even say that it has a blues flavor. Being church-oriented I don't particularly like to say that, but I do say it's very unique. It's different than any steel playing that you've ever heard."
The story in Stone's video traces clear lines in the rise of "sacred steel," a tradition young enough that the pioneering voice of a Willie Eason, living in St. Petersburg at age 80, can still be heard.
The acoustic steel guitar was developed in Hawaii in the late 1880s, and popularized on the mainland in the 1920s by Hawaiian artists such as Sol Ho'opi'i, who recorded hundreds of sides for Columbia, Decca and other labels. On a standard guitar, the musician presses the strings using the fingers; a steel guitarist uses a metal bar, or steel, to press against the strings. (A pedal-steel guitar allows notes to be changed using foot pedals.) By sliding that bar up and down the strings, the guitarist produces a singing sound. Most listeners would recognize it from country music, which often features steel guitar as a minor instrument, played almost exclusively by white players.
In the House of God, however, steel guitar is the music's leading instrument, and its most important component. It accompanies singers, adds dramatic emphasis to sermons and testimonies, drives the praise or "shout" music and is a boisterous undercurrent to offertory processions. "Once a person hears what's being played in the hands of a gospel player, you know it's not your basic ordinary 'Amazing Grace,'" says Elton Noble, who plays in the Apopka church. "Everything is jazzed up. There's a lot of flavor to the sound. A lot of flavor."
Stone tracked the steel guitar's use in worship services to the late 1930s, when a young Eason, who had taught himself a new and "distinctly vocal" style on his brother's guitar without his brother's knowledge, wowed a church celebration. As a teen Eason later joined a group of touring preachers and musicians, taking his style to churches and tent revivals all over. That style influenced Eason's brother-in-law, Henry Nelson, who then went on to redefine it into the dominant force practiced today. Indeed, where Eason's playing was melodic, Nelson's had bounce. "He was emulating the rub board, the bass drum, the hand-clapping and the moans that we hear from a regular service with just this one instrument," says Chuck Campbell in Stone's documentary.
Henry's innovations inspired a new generation, including his son, Aubrey Ghent. "Basically," says Ghent, "a lot of us learned by observing. It's kind of like show-and-tell: watch and then perform, or learn as you go. ... There's not a lot of music reading, so it tends to keep it simple, and that's what makes it so informal."
Fast-forward to Bob Stone, who now lives in Gainesville and holds the title of outreach coordinator for the Florida Folklife Program, part of the Department of State's Division of Historical Resources. A mechanical engineer by trade, Stone switched careers and signed on with the state program in 1990. But he kept in touch with friends in South Florida. Through one former bandmate, he heard about black gospel musicians frequenting a music shop to buy steel guitars. That led to his first field trip in 1992 to meet with Ghent. Stone's first reaction: "Wow. This is church music?"
That musical initiation began at Ghent's Fort Pierce apartment with a private performance. "He played a couple of pieces, and we were just knocked out," said Stone. Later that day Stone went to a House of God state assembly to hear Glenn Lee, who was one of the first to use the pedal steel in this tradition. Upon entering and seeing more than 1,000 people celebrating, Stone recalls, "I walked in there and the music was already going. It was dynamite. ... I brought that tape back. I was listening to it. My boss was listening to it. It was just great stuff."
Stone soon sought a $6,500 grant from the federal National Endowment for the Arts, with the state providing matching funds. Over the next couple of years, he tracked down and recorded many of these players. When the work was done, the grant allowed the state to print about 400 cassette copies. One went to Arhoolie, and a partnership for preservation was born.
Even now, musicians themselves credit Stone for helping them understand their achievement. The House of God has always had its national assembly in Nashville. But back in the '70s and '80s when the players would venture into Nashville's music shops, "because we didn't play the country-western style, a lot of times they would say we couldn't play," recalls Chuck Campbell. "So we were actually ashamed to play in front of the country players. Regular country playing seemed like such a -- for lack of a better term -- a higher form of playing. I'm starting to find out with the writings of Bob Stone really what 'sacred steel' has done. It's made us step back and analyze the whole field of what we're doing."
That boost to self-esteem reverberates elsewhere. As members of a Pentecostal denomination, he says, they knew they were viewed by some as less sophisticated and less educated. Fear of ridicule often kept them turned inward, "so you ended up sharing your religion only with your best friends and your family," he says. "The 'sacred steel' phenomenon is doing as lot to change that attitude."
So it is with the convention as well. "This was the first time we got together," Campbell says of last year's gathering. "So I didn't realize how many young guys were playing. I was shocked at how talented, and how many, younger guys are really coming along."
Says Ghent: "It brings both musicians and those who are interested in gospel steel." It also brings corporate interest. This year the largest manufacturer of pedal-steel guitars plans to attend the gathering, perhaps keeping tabs on the custom-made instrument they recently gave Campbell to try out -- "just for six months," he laughs.
And as participants from outside the House of God grow in number, those from within will be both eager and embracing.
"I've never run into a steel player black or white that couldn't get along, because steel binds us," says Campbell. "As long as you play steel, we can talk."