The use of horizontal played-with-a-slide steel guitars in black Pentecostal churches, a practice dating back the 1930s, handily illustrates the complex, mutt-like nature of American musical cultures. Hawaiians had pioneered the technique of pressing a steel bar into the strings of horizontal (Portuguese) guitars with the left hand, sliding from note to note in a voice-like way, while fingerpicking with the right hand.
Hawaiians passed the knowledge to some early so-called “sacred steel” players. After Nashville adopted pedal steel guitar in the 1950s — on which a player could retune strings on the fly, using foot pedals and kneepads — some sacred players adopted that more complicated instrument (while others stayed with fixed-tuning lap steels).
In the later part of the 1990 decade, Arhoolie Records released a number of releases highlighting the sacred steel music that had become a major part of the worship service in two dominions of The Church of the Living God, with talented players using lap and pedal steel guitars instead of the organ to raise a joyful noise.
Those releases created a surge of interest in artists like the Campbell Brothers, Calvin Cooke, and Aubrey Ghent. Soon a new generation of players like Roosevelt Collier, A.J. Ghent (Aubrey’s son), and the Lee Boys took the music in new directions. At the forefront were Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Randolph’s fleet-fingered excursions on the pedal steel garnered him international acclaim, moving the music beyond its gospel roots, becoming quite popular with aficionados of the jam band scene as well as a staple on the blues festival circuit.
Sacred steel also cross-pollinates with other African American slide traditions, stemming from the one-string diddly-bow: a length of wire stretched between woodblocks that might be nailed to the side of a house, and played with a sliding bottle. That starter instrument was a way station for blues guitarists “fretting” with a bottleneck or metal slide slipped over a southpaw finger.
The initial impetus for this debut release from DaShawn Hickman came from the 2019 North Carolina Folk Festival, where Hickman met Charlie Hunter, a guitarist noted for his outstanding technical skills as well as the custom built guitars with seven and eight strings that he utilizes. They stayed in touch, and two years ago decided to do a project together. Hickman had been playing with the Allen Boys, billed as North Carolina’s only touring sacred steel band.
It was Hunter’s suggestion that they create space for Hickman’s lap steel guitar, making it a focus in the mix. With that in mind, they enlisted the aid of two well-versed percussionists, Atiba Rorie and Brevan Hampden. Hunter handles the bass guitar. Hickman’s wife, Wendy, contributes vocals and plays the tambourine.
Hickman learned to play the steel guitar at a young age, listening to his mother sing, then trying to pick out the notes she sang on his instrument. You get a taste of that approach on “Shout,” a song of praise that finds DaShawn engaging in a spirited call and response with Wendy’s dignified vocal. The opening track, “Saints,” takes the classic in a new direction with a thick bass line from Hunter, swirling percussive rhythms, and Hickman’s impressive improvisations on the melody. Another gospel standard, “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” gives Hickman the opportunity to showcase his musical approach, once again taking his time to explore the melody, avoiding the impulse to fill the space with a flurry of notes. Instead, his measured approach and sensitive interaction with the percussionists offers many delights.
“Morning Train” features a strong vocal turn from Wendy while her husband conjures up images of locomotives on the lap steel. When the drummers lay down a percussive break, Hickman finally turns the heat up, his inspired playing calling God’s children home. The couple share the vocals on the solemn “Don’t Let The Devil Ride,” another lengthy track full of the guitarist’s understated variations on the melody.
The disc finishes with Hickman’s interpretations of two more gospel standards, “Precious Lord” and “Wade In The Water.” The former is centered on a loping percussive pattern that gives Hickman a solid foundation for his subtly impassioned guitar musings while the latter has soaring steel licks that threaten to explode at any second, only to give way to a percussion coda that brings the brief track to a satisfying conclusion.
Throughout the album, Hickman stays focused on the song, the melody, and the voice, creating beautifully crafted improvisations that generate expressive new dimensions in familiar songs. It may take some time for his lap steel to sink into your consciousness. When it does, you will have no doubts as to why he is nominated for two 2023 Blues Blast Music Awards, in the New Artist Debut Album, and the Slide Guitarist Of the Year categories. It is a heady mix, this seamless melding of gospel music with rhythms that spring from African and Latin traditions, anchored by Hunter’s efforts on bass. And Hickman makes it work, reminding listeners time and again about the lessons he absorbed from his mother.
The sacred steel tradition got more exposure in the new century thanks to crossover jammer Robert Randolph. Players who came up in his wake include DaShawn Hickman of Mt. Airy, North Carolina’s Allen Boys, an electric band mixing the sacred and secular. With the 37-minute seven-tune Drums, Roots & Steel, Hickman furthers all that cross-culturalism by deploying a pair of Afro-Latin percussionists in place of drum set. Their congas, bongos, blocks, shakers, tambourine and ringing metal make gospel music’s old-world roots explicit.
Credit for that percussion section goes to album producer Charlie Hunter, whose prominent billing on the sleeve is more about that groovemeister’s endorsement than his profile within. Hunter plays electric bass guitar on all but one track, mostly taking a low-key role, though he will facilitate the bump in the beat. Many churches discourage boogieing down in the pews, but in the House of God sect that gave rise to sacred steel, such exertions signal ecstatic praise, not demonic influence. The bumpingest number leads off, a syncopated lope on Dixielanders’ fave “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Hickman plays a 12-string pedal steel, and such instruments (with their narrow-interval tunings) were designed to facilitate lush, multi-string chord voicings. But Hickman, like other sacred-steelists, is a linear, voice-oriented player: he’s more about melody than background harmony, though he’ll riff in the pauses, and punctuate with grunting chords here and there, emulating amens from the flock, or pianist Horace Silver’s terse jazz comping. Hickman the melodist likes a thick, slightly distorted sound, which, combined with his slide vibrato, mimics rough Pentecostal voices. Sensitive to true and finely shaded pitch, he makes you hear the writhing life in his little fluctuations. (Messing with a decaying note: it’s what guitarists do.) Late in that opening “Saints,” steel with wah-wah pedal testifies over stop-time rhythm, echoing the fancy ornaments one might hear when a choir’s solo singer takes flight. There’s more sanctified aerobatics on the equally evergreen “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” where Hickman also feathers a few Hawaiian and Nashville chords, and the percussionists set up a quasi-Cuban montuno for him to ride over: more spice in the mix.
Wendy Hickman sings three numbers with friendly gusto. “Shout” is pure gospel joy over a barely modified blues progression; on “Morning Train” she’s answered by wah-wah’d steam-whistle effects — Hickman at his raunchiest/shoutiest. “Don’t Let the Devil Ride” is really two versions back to back: a slow one where the leader sings a chorus with some of those curlicues he voices on guitar elsewhere, before Wendy takes over on a slightly faster more rhythmically active take with some slinky slide chording. Pedal steel’s upward spirals gets most quietly passionate on a bare-bones, slow-drag, trio “Precious Lord.” Here alas the dual percussionists lay back more than they fill in the open texture, impassive enough to recall a 1970s ethnic-restaurant-band drum machine. Whereas on “Wade in the Water,” they’re right in the pocket.
On the stereo stage, percussion fans out to the sides and strings barrel down the middle. The no frills approach fits the program. (Benjy Johnson recorded them at Earthtones in Greensboro.) Hickman’s live-wire, slightly reverby sound seems to pop straight out of his amp, unmediated, letting his sound speak for itself. Just enough reverb applied elsewhere makes it all a snug fit.