It’s only fitting that the Campbell Brothers would have their own version of “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The song inevitably conjures Sam Cooke, who wrote and recorded it years after he’d gone from singing in church to singing at the Copa and seen how uneasy church people were with that transition. The Campbell Brothers know a little about that sort of thing. They honed their sacred steel craft in the House of God Church, Keith Dominion, and they’ve taken it to jam band festivals and the Kennedy Center. And several years into their own transition, they put Darick Campbell’s pleading instrumental reading of “A Change Is Gonna Come” on their 2005 album, Can You Feel It?
But they also do it in church.
The comparison with Cooke works to a point; his kind of church music wasn’t entirely alien to pop and R&B, and vice versa. The Campbell Brothers, on the other hand, are third-generation heirs to a unique musical tradition, a heated, hard-driving style of gospel centered on the electric steel guitar (both lap and pedal varieties) that originated in their African American Holiness-Pentecostal denomination and flourished there for some 60 years with few outsiders really taking notice.
First in line
As genres go, sacred steel still is far from a household name. But it’s every bit as exciting as anything happening in the blues and jam band scenes, and the young pedal steel player Robert Randolph has done much to popularize a pop/rock crossover take on it. “That’s why I take my hat off to Robert Randolph,” says Darick Campbell, the Campbell Brothers’ lap steel guitarist, who spent several years between the late 1980s and mid-1990s living in Macon, Ga. and playing in a House of God Church there. “He has taken a lot of hits for going out and going as far as he has taken sacred steel.”
Before anybody had heard of Robert Randolph, the Campbell Brothers were one of the first groups to, rather incidentally, introduce sacred steel to an audience outside the House of God. They were playing strictly in the church when Chris Strachwitz approached them about recording an album for the traditional folk and roots music label Arhoolie in 1997.
“When we first did the album … it wasn’t our intention to go out and play music,” Campbell explains. “[Chris Strachwitz] was fascinated by our music and the way we played the music. …He is known for recording roots music in its purest form, and he wanted us to do it in its purest form. Because what we wanted to do was do, like, keyboards, synthesizers and different things. But he wanted us to record basically as raw as we possibly could, play it like in church. That’s all we were doing at the time and he felt like people in the world should hear this type of music.”
Not surprisingly, after hearing them on record, people wanted to hear them live. “The Folk Alliance [Conference in Memphis] was around the third or fourth event that we actually played outside the church,” recalls Campbell. “That was the first time, and we were nervous and scared. We didn’t know how we were going to be received, but fortunately, we were received and welcomed by that community and they really enjoyed the music.”
Navigating the sacred, secular
But with new performing opportunities came new concerns: “And that was a real tricky thing with the church, because the church, at that time, didn’t approve of you going out playing other than within our church. …Our leader at the time, [Bishop] J.C. Elliot, he was more lenient and said he felt like it was OK. Even my father [Bishop Charles E. Campbell] as a leader, he didn’t at first approve of us going out playing at different churches.”
Clearly, a compromise was reached; much good could come of sharing the music. The Campbell Brothers have kept on playing in the church and outside of it, though they have yet to go full-time. Campbell says he’s ready to take that leap and regrets having turned down a gig with Mavis Staples a couple years back. They‘ve recorded two more Arhoolie albums and one—the one featuring the Cooke cover—for the more contemporary-minded label Ropeadope. Thanks especially to that, they’ve found a home in music scenes where people appreciate players letting loose, and shared the stage with stylistically divergent kindred spirits like B.B. King and the Allman Brothers.
Even within the distinctive world of sacred steel, the Campbell Brothers stand out, since they have two steel guitarists: Darick Campbell on lap steel and his brother Chuck on pedal steel. “Most times you’ll see one or the other,” Campbell remarks. “Our band is unique to where Chuck and I are able to sit down and play together. We’ve worked it out to where when he is leading I’m trying to back him up, and when I’m leading he’s backing me up.”
Growing up in Rochester where his father was the state bishop of New York, Campbell began his musical life playing the drums so that he could back his brothers; Chuck was already on pedal steel and another brother, Phil, was then on bass. Campbell picked up the pedal steel when Chuck started having to work nights: “The [church] service just isn’t the same without a steel. …I said I would learn.” Campbell switched to lap steel after hearing the voice-like quality influential early-generation player Henry Nelson got from his instrument.
Over years of playing for separate audiences, Campbell has seen how differently being moved by the music can look. “Playing at the church … people come expecting to get into the music because we consider the music a vehicle or an enhancement to help usher in the spirit, if you will,” he says. “At a concert we are there just playing, presenting our type and our style of music, and if people feel it, some people say, ‘Well, they’re under the influence of whatever drink or…’ But I tell you this, when people leave the concert singing the songs which you perform and they come back and tell you ‘I like “Don’t Let the Devil Ride” or “What’s His Name?”’ or ‘Man, I love “Change Is Gonna Come.” You made me cry.’ To me, that’s connecting as far as I’m concerned.”