Sacred steel is that unique vein of gospel music highlighting pedal-steel guitar and delivering a powerful sound that can shake the rafters. On his debut, Drums, Roots & Steel, DaShawn Hickman works with bassist/producer Charlie Hunter, two percussionists, and singer/wife Wendy Hickman to conjure music of staggering beauty and grace. VG checked in with DaShawn to unpack the heavenly sounds within.
We tend to think of organ as the primary worship instrument, but the steel guitar was in your church growing up.
The steel guitar is common to the organization I grew up in, and definitely the leading instrument. It was introduced in the ’30s. I remember at an early age hearing the steel guitar in my home church being played by my godfather, Mr. Leonard Moore; he played a white 10-string Emmons. He had a laid-back style and would let me play around on it after service was over. Later, around six years old, my mother, Rev. Alice Hickman, was learning to play. She started teaching me and at that point I knew this instrument was in my future.
Who are your steel influences?
My influences are my mother, Terrance Fonville, Alvin Fonville, The Campbell Brothers, Henry Nelson, Calvin Cook, and David Fonville – the majority of them still are a part of The House of God organization. Influences from outside of the church are Derek Trucks, Paul Franklin, Buddy Emmons, and Tommy White, just to name a few.
Production on the album is understated and uncluttered. What did guitarist/bassist Charlie Hunter bring to the party?
Charlie brought the idea of dialing things back. He thought it would be nice to have the steel guitar be more front and center, and be heard for what it is. So, we sat down and came up with the tunes – a mix between jazz, gospel, blues, and funk. His bass lines really opened me up to play freely, and he knew exactly what to apply to each track. He covered a lot of ground, yet did not crowd everything.
Where did you get the idea to mix steel with West African percussion? It’s an incredible combination.
Charlie and I wanted to scale back drums with heavy cymbals and everything else. He brought up the idea of the West African drums; in his words, “Dude, it’ll be great, you won’t miss a beat, trust me.” I admit I was kind of iffy at first because I have always played with a full band using steel guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, even keyboard. But once we got with Atiba Rorie and Brevan Hampden, they came up with real magic that made me a believer – these guys are amazing percussionists, and I was honored to collaborate with them.
Which steel did you use?
It was my main one – the Carter S12 with seven pedals and five knees, tuned in E7 – a combination of E9 and open E. I have one other pedal steel, an MSA S-10 with three pedals and two knees. That was my first one. One of my favorite guitars is a Guyatone HG-306 lap steel. It comes in handy when I just set up and go.
Your throaty, overdriven tone is huge. What are your amps and pedals?
I’ve played Peavey amps from the beginning, which makes you ask, “How many six-year-olds started out playing a Peavey Session 500 with a 15″ Black Widow speaker?” (laughs) I’ve owned several of their amps and still have a few, mostly Renown models. But, my main amp is a Special 212 with Blue Marvel speakers, and it’s a workhorse. As far as pedals, I’m pretty simple with the setup – more often than not you’ll hear me playing the Exotic EP booster, and I’ll occasionally break out the Boss V-Wah, which can be heard on “Morning Train.” It gives the illusion of a train whistle.
Our readers know Derek Trucks’ playing well – you can hear the parallel between Derek’s slide and your steel.
Derek is an incredible musician – undoubtedly one of my favorites – and there is a parallel between the styles. My gospel style developed from my upbringing in a church with the music presentation I witnessed. But I think you could bring Mr. Trucks to play in my church and it would sound like the steel is present. I would love to play with him one day – somebody make that happen (laughs)!
Do you still play in church, or are you mostly touring, bringing sacred-steel across the country?
I still play at my home church here in Mount Airy, North Carolina. When I’m not out traveling, I’m there. It’s where I come from and is the place that allowed me to grow as a musician. My church family has supported me in using my gift, and I love them unconditionally for it.
This article originally appeared in VG’s September 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.