A Sacred Steel PrimerThe first electric guitar, the National lap steel guitar known as the “Frying Pan,” debuted in 1932. Right at that time, a revolution was taking place in the Pentecostal sect known as the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth. The church divided after the death of its founder, and two splinter dominions, the Keith and the Jewell, adopted the new instrument as a cheaper, more practical alternative to the traditional church organ. And thus the sacred steel tradition was born.
Early proponents included J.R. Lockley and brothers Troman and Willie Eason. The tradition continues to this day, upheld by a line that includes the Rev. Aubrey Ghent (who conducts services in Nashville, home of the annual Southern Sacred Steel Conference), the Campbell Brothers, Calvin Cooke, Sonny Treadway, the Lee Boys, and, of course, Robert Randolph. All these artists have multiple albums, but the primer that introduced the style to the secular world (and inspired the Word) is the 1997 Arhoolie Records compilation Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida, which includes music from both the Keith and Jewell dominions.