When Arhoolie Records’ Chris Strachwitz stumbled onto Mance Lipscomb, the amazing 65-year-old Texas bluesman and songster who had never recorded, in 1960, it was a bit like an anthropologist coming across a saber-toothed tiger or a woolly mammoth. We knew they existed once, but no one had seen one in a while.
But when the steel guitarists who play at the Keith and Jewel Dominion Holiness Pentecostal churches came to Strachwitz’s attention in the late ’90s, it was akin to discovering an entire new species. And there were literally dozens of these musicians, each amazing, each different from the next. In American folk music, those kinds of finds just don’t happen anymore.
In a short time, Arhoolie has released several CDs and a video spotlighting the music, and this, the label’s sixth such release, was recorded live at the first-ever Sacred Steel Convention, held last spring.
“Praise Him with stringed instruments,” sayeth Psalm 150:4 – like a Melobar Power Slide, in the case of Calvin Cooke. Aided by his wife, Grace, Cooke gives a better treatise on the development of sacred steel than any musicologist ever could, on “Have You Tried Jesus.” The track begins with just a bass drum, because, as Calvin explains, that’s all they had in the old days. Then Mrs. Cooke’s booming voice enters. Pretty soon, Mr. Cooke continues, they add a rhythm guitar and a whole drum kit, and things were really rocking. After the addition of an electric bass and a tambourine, Calvin points out that “normally they had an organ, had a piano…but in our church we had a steel guitar” – at which point his Melobar slices into the proceedings, ratcheting the already-rising energy level up several notches.
The spirited set features 11 steel players (including two in tandem), some utilizing pedals, some preferring lapsteels. Elder statesman Aubrey Ghent, who has already released a solo Arhoolie CD, cooks on the title tune, and 21-year-old Bryan “Josh” Taylor backs his father’s vocal on the hand-clapping “God Is a Good One,” with a distorted, glassy tone reminiscent of David Lindley or Sonny Landreth.
The program ranges from the primitive stomp-and-holler of “What’s His Name? – Jesus!” (highlighting some high-speed right-hand picking courtesy Chuck Campbell) to a funky reworking of the “Come Together” bass line on “See What the End Gonna Be” (with Lonnie “Big Ben” Bennett’s pedal steel, which also shines on an instrumental “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”).
Normally providing background to sermons, the concert setting gives the players a chance to put their slide work center stage, and each rises to the occasion, and then some. Gospel music is always best enjoyed live, but sadly most attempts at capturing that fervor on record fall a bit short. All the more kudos to Strachwitz (as executive producer) and producer Robert L. Stone for succeeding in capturing this lively music and putting the listener right in the front pew.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.