You don't need a history lesson to enjoy this record, but it helps. The story begins in the 1930s and '40s, when a Hawaiian music fad brought steel guitars into living rooms and concert halls across the United States. The instrument even found its way into religion, quickly becoming an integral part of praise music and holy dance in two small Holiness-Pentecostal denominations based in the South. That's where The Best of Sacred Steel picks up.
Released last month by El Cerrito's Arhoolie Records — a fifty-year-old imprint that specializes in hard-to-find country, bluegrass, and old-time recordings — the compilation features the work of sixteen steel guitarists, many of whom developed their blues- and gospel-based styles largely independent of the secular world. Among these "sacred steel" pioneers were Willie Eason, who played and sang for worship services and street-corner ministries up and down the East Coast. His instrumental hymn "Near the Cross" closes the album, with emotive steel guitar filling in for plaintive, soulful vocals as its brightly electrified notes slide up and down the neck. Eason's nephew Henry Nelson shaped the steel guitar music of the Keith Dominion churches over six decades; here, he contributes the eight-minute "Praise the Lord Everybody," a rousing number centered on the titular lyric that offers more in the way of spirit than musical complexity. Nelson's son Aubrey Ghent, a preacher and fellow musician, truly makes his six-string lap steel sing on gospel-tinged album highlight "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." A lot of ground is covered across these 72 minutes, but suffice to say the album has plenty to offer anyone interested in praise music, ethnomusicology, or that brilliant steel guitar. (Arhoolie Records)