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Charles "Chuck" T. Campbell

Oct. 14, 1957

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Charles Campbell has been a major force in the popularity of sacred steel guitar playing, which until the early 1990s was unknown outside the African American churches where it provided a powerful, joyous voice. Recordings have inspired younger players and moved older musicians to start playing again. “I'm telling you the tradition is alive and well,” he says. Here he is playing for a concert in Pont St. Martin, Italy, 1999, photograph by Robert L. Stone
Charles Campbell, 2004 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, photograph by Michael G. Stewart, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Charles Campbell, 2004 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, photograph by Michael G. Stewart, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Charles Campbell praying with the congregation, House of God, Rush, New York, 2001, photograph by Robert L. Stone
Charles Campbell gives Floridian Glenn Lee (1968-2000) some pointers at the House of God headquarters church, Nashville, Tennessee, 1995. Glenn Lee was the major pedal-steel influence among Florida House of God musicians. Photograph by Robert L. Stone
Charles Campbell, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Charles Campbell, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Willie Eason regales (left to right) Chuck, Carlton and Phil Campbell with tales of bygone days when he traveled widely to play for worship services, revivals and street corner music ministries, Crescent City, Florida 1998. photograph by Robert L. Stone
Charles Campbell, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Chuck Campbell (left), National Folk Festival, 2004, Bangor, Maine, photograph by Barry Bergey

Charles Campbell began playing steel guitar at age 11 while growing up in Rochester, New York, where his father was bishop of the House of God church. The tradition of the steel guitar in the denomination dated back to the 1930s, when Willie Eason began playing the instrument in a Philadelphia church.

In the 1970s, Campbell began playing the twelve-string pedal steel guitar, which had several advantages over the lap steel and table steel guitars traditionally used. With the pedal steel, a musician can change keys without retuning the instrument. This is particularly important in the church services, in which the steel guitar must accompany any singer who gets up to perform, in whatever key. And the pedal steel player can better sustain and bend tones, contributing to the powerful call-and-response between instrument and vocal that makes the guitar appear to talk.

The sacred steel tradition for many years was unknown outside the churches where it was practiced. In 1992, folklorist Robert Stone heard sacred steel players in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, area. He recorded twenty tracks, including songs by Campbell and his brothers, Phil and Darik. The cassette tape caught the attention of Arhoolie Records owner Chris Strachwitz, who brought it out with a few changes in 1997 as the first of a series of “Sacred Steel” recordings.

“We had always wanted to record,” Campbell told No Depression magazine in 1999, “but we were trying to use synthesizers and drum machines to be up with the times. When Robert Stone and Arhoolie came in and said, ‘What you’re doing in church is the greatest thing in the world,’ we were both surprised and glad. We had loved what we did in church, but we didn’t know anybody else would feel the same way.”

The Campbell Brothers continue to play at House of God events and at festivals and in concerts around the country. Campbell says the recordings of sacred steel have sparked a great interest in the music.

“In the middle of the ‘90s, the sacred steel really started breaking out with the Arhoolie recordings and with Bob Stone documenting sacred steel music and musicians,” Campbell told NEA interviewer Mary Eckstein. “Then we started having the sacred steel convention, and to my surprise I start seeing all these young kids coming up whose parents I knew — and all of them had pedal steels and lap steels. I’m telling you the tradition is alive and well. I thought there were maybe fifty young players, but there have got to be at least two hundred or so.

“Then there are the older people that had their steels in the closet. We have over two hundred churches, if I’m not mistaken, and nearly every pastor has a steel guitar that’s been sitting in the closet. Because of what they’ve seen happening with sacred steel, they started playing again. It’s like they’ve been rejuvenated! It’s really wild to see all these older guys and the younger guys showing you what they can do on the steel guitar.

“Playing the steel guitar is a lifelong journey. I don’t know of any steeler that feels like they’re complete, that they’ve learned everything that they can. It’s something that is almost eternal that you just love and can never exhaust. I’m sure we’re just scratching the surface of this instrument at this point.”

Bibliography
Grigg, Andy. “Real Blues: Review of Pass Me Not.” www.arhoolie.com (accessed 22 August 2006).
Margasak, Peter. “Hot Licks for the Lord.” The Chicago Reader (March 1999).
Morris, Chris. “Billboard: Review of Sacred Steel.” (accessed 22 August 2006).

Discography
The Campbell Brothers featuring Katie Jackson. Pass Me Not. Arhoolie Records. CD-461.
The Campbell Brothers. Sacred Steel on Tour. Arhoolie Records. CD 503.
_____. Sacred Steel for the Holidays. Arhoolie Records. CD 504.
_____. Rallytime! Live in New Orleans. _____. Beyond the 4 Walls. APO, 2013. _____. Live at Jazzfest 2013. Munck Mix.

Watch

Charles Campbell, 2004 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Charles Campbell performing in the documentary Sacred Steel: The Steel Guitar Tradition of the House of God Churches. Arhoolie AFV-203 DVD


Charles Campbell interview from the documentary Sacred Steel: The Steel Guitar Tradition of the House of God Churches. Arhoolie AFV-203 DVD

Charles Campbell interview from the documentary Sacred Steel: The Steel Guitar Tradition of the House of God Churches. Arhoolie AFV-203 DVD
"www.arhoolie.com")


Listen

Charles Campbell answers the question 'When did this music first catch on outside of the church?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar

Charles Campbell answers the question 'When did you start playing the steel guitar?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar

Charles Campbell answers the question 'Why did you choose the pedal steel guitar?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, Interview by Alan Govenar

Charles Campbell answers the question 'What is the role of improvisation in your music?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar

Charles Campbell answers the question 'What place in the church does the steel guitar play?' Arlington, Virginia, 2004, interview by Alan Govenar

The Campbell Brothers, 'Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Saviour,' Pass Me Not. 1997, Arhoolie CD 461

The Campbell Brothers, 'Mary, Don't You Weep,' Pass Me Not. 1997, Arhoolie CD 461

The Campbell Brothers, 'Morning Train,' Pass Me Not. 1997, Arhoolie CD 461

The Campbell Brothers, 'What's His Name? ... Jesus!' Pass Me Not, 1997, Arhoolie CD 461

The Campbell Brothers with Katie Jackson, 'God Is A Good God,' Sacred Steel Live, 1999, Arhoolie CD 472

The Campbell Brothers with Willie Eason, 'Take Your Burden To The Lord,' Sacred Steel Live, 1999, Arhoolie CD 472

The Campbell Brothers with Elwood Haygood, 'Sit Down If You Can,' Sacred Steel Live, 1999, Arhoolie CD 472

The Campbell Brothers with Willie Eason, 'Near The Cross,' Sacred Steel Live, 1999, Arhoolie CD 472

The Campbell Brothers, 'Silent Night,' Sacred Steel for the Holidays, 2001, Arhoolie CD 504

The Campbell Brothers, 'I've Got a Feeling,' Sacred Steel On Tour, 2001, Arhoolie CD 503