Charles "Chuck" T. Campbell is known as a master of the sacred steel. This form of music originated in the House of God, a Holiness-Pentecostal church founded in 1903 by a Tennessee street preacher named Mary Magdalene Lewis Tate. In the 1930s a number of these churches began using the electric steel guitar to function as the central musical instrument of the religious service, easing the congregants through contemplative moments and propelling them to ecstatic celebration at other times. Charles Campbell, whose father was a bishop in the church, began playing steel guitar at age 11 and today is recognized as a great innovator and teacher in the tradition. Campbell developed a unique tuning and set-up for the pedal steel that is today emulated by a new generation of steel players. While younger players like Robert Randolph have taken the sacred steel sound into the secular world of arena concerts, Charles Campbell continues to teach the young and pay tribute to the elders. At the same time, he continually looks for new ways to give the steel guitar a personal voice of celebration and praise.
NEA: Congratulations on your award. What was your reaction when you first heard the news?
MR. CAMPBELL: I thought it was a joke because I had no idea that I was even nominated. Barry Bergey called and said, "You've won a Heritage fellowship award." I know about the Heritage award because Chris Strachwitz and Joe Wilson both got one so I knew it was prestigious. But the magnitude of it didn't hit me until Barry explained the different elements of it. It really hit me when the press release hit and it was in the news here in Rochester. People from all walks of life have been congratulating me. It's just amazing.
NEA: Has there been a lot of press about it there?
MR. CAMPBELL: Yes. All of our papers covered it, including my work paper. My manager called me at the job and said, "You know, Charlie, you always downplay everything you've been doing, but you can't aw shucks this one away. This is huge. I'm so proud of you and so are all the guys on the job." These are the guys that helped me when we started traveling and doing more things outside of the church. My job has always been very accommodating.
NEA: What are your earliest memories of learning the steel guitar? How were you first attracted to the steel guitar tradition?
MR. CAMPBELL: I must have been around five or six because I was in Nashville at our national meeting when my father was going to Tennessee State University. There weren’t many steel guitar players in our local churches at the time and it was at the meeting I first heard the steel guitar. I thought it was so pretty. Then we moved back up north to Rochester, New York and the local churches there had a couple of steel players. I was always influenced by them and because of them I wanted to play the steel guitar.
When I was ten or so I was in Nashville again at our national convention and there was a professional player there named Jimmy Day playing the pedal steel, just tuning it up and playing the pedals. It was just beautiful. My father asked if he would play a tune and he took a whiskey bottle he was drinking from and used it on the strings instead of the steel bar. He was drinking whiskey with that hand while he played “Amazing Grace” with the pedals and just the picks. I had never heard anything so beautiful.
I always thought in order to play the instrument you had to have the spirit of God. At my age, to see this guy with the other spirit in his hand, drinking while he played, was really something! But then he asked me to play. I was so in awe of him that I couldn’t even hold the steel bar.
From that day on I begged my father to get me a pedal steel guitar. They finally bought me one, a double-neck ten with ten pedals and four knee levers -- but said I could never play traditional country western style. I was able to tune it and adapt it to the sacred steel style.
NEA: What was it like learning to play? Was it difficult?
MR. CAMPBELL: When you first start playing it sounds good to you because you can make some nice sounds on it. The vocal-like qualities can come through even on one string. About six months after I got it, I took it to church and started playing but they told me to stop. They told me to go home because they said it was horrible.
NEA: Oh, my.
MR. CAMPBELL: It’s funny, because it can sound horrible to others but really good to you. After about a year I actually got good enough to start playing in church. A year after that, when I was 13, I started playing at our state convention. I was 14 when I was introduced to the pedal steel guitar.
NEA: What role does the pedal steel guitar play in the church?
NEA: It plays the role a pipe organ does in a Catholic service or the traditional organ in a Baptist or traditional church. The steel is the lead instrument, all other instruments back it up. It’s not really a good House of God church service unless there’s a steel guitar there. The steel guitar accompanies everything from the congregational songs to the choirs to the prayers and the sermons. It's played throughout the whole service, even at the benediction.
NEA: How has the music changed since you were young? Has there been much innovation?
MR. CAMPBELL: It has changed dramatically. Everything from just playing a single note where you mimic the song to where you play blazing leads and really complex rhythms. One of my innovations was playing modern complex chords such as major sevens and sixes and sevens, minor sevenths. Those chords that are not normally in a major tuning where we used to play. But the pedal steel allows you to do all the complex chords with the rhythm and even with lead line doing complex scales and things of that nature. So that's part of the innovation, incorporating more modern styles and techniques so we can play all types of music.
One of the things the pedal steel has allowed me to do and people after me is incorporate our steel-playing forefathers Willie Easen , Henry Nelson, Calvin Cook, Ted Beard, Lorenzo Harrison. They played and made the tunings in different intervals. The pedal steel allowed you to change into those different intervals and sound just like they sounded. So within a service I was able to mimic all of those that had gone before me. And I could go from playing in those different styles to develop a style of my own.
NEA: How difficult has it been trying to make a career out of this and trying to continue the tradition?
MR. CAMPBELL: The great thing is that the Campbell Brothers were recorded by Arhoolie Records in our natural habitat so when we started performing outside of the church people wanted to hear it the way it sounded there. We never had to change our music, which was very surprising. In fact, whenever we have tried to change it, they always bring us back to what we are because they say that’s what’s unique and attractive about what we do.
At one time the church was not very accepting of sacred steel players playing outside of the church, even at other churches. But starting in the 90s this became acceptable -- the churches actually started welcoming guests who came just to hear the steel at services. As for keeping it in the tradition, we still play in the church every Sunday that we're not on the road, which keeps us very close to the tradition. We know that if it doesn't work in church we're getting a little too far out.
NEA: Is there a lot of interest in continuing the tradition? Is it being passed along to the younger generations as well?
MR. CAMPBELL: Back in the middle '70s, when I started, it was more popular in the north. Then in the '80s a couple of guys started playing in the south. They would ask me what they should do and how to set up the pedal steel.
I remember going down to Florida in the '90s and to my surprise all the young guys were playing the pedal steel. And they could play in the tradition that I was playing in. In the middle of the '90s, the sacred steel really started breaking out with the Arhoolie recordings and with [Florida folklorist] Bob Stone documenting sacred steel music and musicians. 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 50 young players but there have got to be at least 200 or so.
Then there are the older people that had their steels in the closet. We have over 200 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.
NEA: Do you think it has transformed the church services to have more music involved?
MR. CAMPBELL: Every once in a while someone will get up and say, "You know, it's not about the music. It's about the spirit of God." Inevitably, somebody else will get up and say, "Well, I'll tell you what, you can say we have as good a time without the music but I'll tell you it makes it a whole lot easier." Everybody loves the music. When we arrive at the church, people grab your guitar and help set it up just to make sure that they're going to have music. They love it.
NEA: What has compelled you to continue the pedal steel throughout the years?
MR. CAMPBELL: First of all, I have a love for the instrument. It's one of the most expressive instruments in the world. I know a lot of people say that about their instrument. But the pedal steel is not only a beautiful instrument melodically but because of its expressiveness it's almost an instrument with a soul.
On top of that it's a mechanical monster that can be programmed. Most pedal steel players are real tinkerers, they love mechanics. In my earlier days, everybody would call me up for tuning, the pedal set ups, you know, how to make things work, especially in our tradition. So I would work on a steel guitar for three, four weeks at a time, trying to tweak it and then spend like two or three years to get it really tweaked to where I wanted it. And finally you get it and it's one of the greatest feelings to hear the instrument behave and do what you ask it to do.
I just love the instrument and I love the expression that it brings and the joy that it brings not only to myself but to others.
NEA: What makes an excellent pedal steel player? And what advice do you have for younger players?
MR. CAMPBELL: I'm asked this question by a lot of the younger guys I mentor. I listen for precision, which is the way I was taught. We're very precise in that the tradition is about being able to play a song and make it sound like a human voice. That's number one. The second thing I look for is soulfulness.
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. And if you’ve you ever started playing one of these things you know it's very addictive. There's a joke in the pedal steel community, that a lot of pedal steelers have had divorces because it's like they're married to the instrument.