A Pentecostal couple in Toledo (Ohio’s suburb of Detroit) have endeavored to make their city a hub for a hybrid style of Hawaiian and Blues guitar playing that hasn’t found significant footing outside of steel guitar interest groups and two very specific African-American Christian denominations. Del Ray and Kelli Grace founded Sacred Strings Recordings in 2009, with an aim to the preservation and awareness of “Sacred Steel,” a form of gospel music largely established by one Willie Eason (1921-2005). Check out this marvelous interview and performance by Eason, talking and singing about FDR.
Eason learned steel guitar from his older brother Troman, who had learned lap steel in the Hawaiian style. Willie’s innovation was to merge Hawaiian with Blues, intending to imitate gospel singing with single guitar notes. The Tomans introduced their guitars into church services in lieu of organs, after which the style took off. I quote Wikipedia here at perhaps greater length than necessary, but I simply had to include all those awesome church names:
The Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, was founded in 1903 by Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate. Following her death in 1930, the church divided into three branches, known as the Keith, Jewell and Lewis dominions. The steel guitar was embraced in the worship of two of these dominions, the Keith Dominion (officially, The House of God Which Is the Church of the Living God the Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy), headquartered in Nashville and the Jewell Dominion (Church of the Living God, Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Which He Purchased With His Own Blood, Inc.) headquartered in Indianapolis. Brothers Troman and Willie Eason introduced lap steel guitar to worship services in place of the traditional organ. This new instrument was met with great enthusiasm and taken up by others including the Bishop J.R. Lockley. The three toured together and later Willie put the new style down on record, recording a total of eighteen sides in the 1940s and 50s.
Since then, sacred steel has grown and flourished within the Keith and Jewell Dominions in churches in at least 22 states, including Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and Tennessee.
And Ohio, clearly. The Graces in Toledo have played host, for four years now, to an annual national gathering of Sacred Steel players, established a Hall Of Fame and a 501c3, and released recordings on their aforementioned label. But perhaps most importantly, they’ve established a YouTube channel chock full of performances. You have to forgive some sub-wedding caliber video production, but it’s worth it. When the guitarists kick in, shit gets all good and boisterous real quick.
Yeah, they’ve got TONS more like that. If this sort of thing is your bag, I wish you happy hunting. For more on the story of the music, I leave you with this generously long clip from the Arhoolie Records documentary Sacred Steel: The Steel Guitar Tradition of the House of God Churches.