Sacred strings: Toledo couple seeks to preserve steel guitar traditionWritten by Jay Hathaway | | email@example.com
A Toledo man is pursuing his dream of preserving and promoting a musical tradition.
Del Ray Grace, along with his wife, Kelli, founded Sacred Strings Records in 2009. The goal of the group, which was incorporated as a nonprofit in August, is to promote a community called sacred steel, a long line of African-American lap and pedal steel guitar players originating from an Alabama church in the early 1900s.
The couple has turned their finished basement into a veritable museum of sacred steel artifacts and recordings.
Sacred steel can be traced to Mary Magdalena Lewis “Mother” Tate, born Mary Lena Street, who founded the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth in Greenville, Ala., in 1903. After her death, the church was split into three “dominions” — the Lewis, the Keith and the Jewell — named after the bishops, or overseers, of different territories.
The sacred steel tradition was born when Troman Eason, a member of the Keith Dominion, heard a man playing a Hawaiian steel guitar in Philadelphia. Eason was fascinated with the instrument and learned to play. He also taught others, including his younger brother Willie. Both joined Bishop J.R. Lockley’s traveling gospel group and soon the steel guitar craze made its way to the Jewell Dominion as well.
Willie Eason shifted from the Hawaiian style of play to one that resembled African-American vocalists and was not unlike blues guitar, Del said. From there, the style traveled organically through several generations.
“Willie was a singer, but he started mimicking voices with single string notes,” he said. “What’s amazing to me is that these guys didn’t go through the schooling or learn music theory, but they had a natural gift and, like any other tradition, it was passed on orally and it started to develop.”
Del grew up attending a Jewell Dominion church, where he said everyone learned to play some instrument. His was the steel guitar.
“Other churches have keyboards or pianos mostly. Steel guitar was always the predominant instrument for us,” he said. “It’s commonplace; we’ve been doing this for a long time. Chances are, when you find an African-American guy playing one of these steel guitars, he probably comes from one of these churches, directly or indirectly.”
Del said the Keith Dominion alone may have as many as 800 steel guitar players throughout the United States today. The most well-known of them, Robert Randolph, has recorded several albums with Warner Bros. Though Randolph and his band began by performing gospel, they eventually included some secular music, which is something the church had discouraged during the early years.
“This music was never represented in the mainstream,” Del said. “[The church] thought if it got out of their control, it would be compromised by secular artists, and they wanted to keep it sacred and holy. So, not many people ever record it. The church knew the music was different and special, and they wanted to keep and protect it. I don’t know what the world was like 60 years ago, but I know today there are ways to protect your music. You can start a record label like I did, and — for lack of a better word — control it and record who you want to on it. You can’t keep music like this quiet.”
Del said the mission of Sacred Strings is to establish Toledo as the mecca of sacred steel music and its history — to give it a home — as well as to record more artists within the community.
“You’ve got guys playing in all these different cities, but there’s nowhere to go to just enjoy the history of it all,” he said. “We’re not the first ones to record this music, but we’re the first ones to develop it and incorporate it into a record label.”
Kelli believes Sacred Strings plays a vital role in teaching current and future generations about the past of steel guitars.
“It’s a way for us to gather all these musicians together and honor them, to preserve that history. It’s an opportunity for everyone to come together,” she said.
The couple said they plan to release a photo book at some point featuring some of the sacred steel legends. Del said he would also like to display their collection in a more public venue.
“If we can just get a room inside of a place, we could get it started,” he said.
Del and Kelli decided a few years ago that broadcasting to the public would be a good way to get the word out about Sacred Strings Records.
The couple started with a Sunday morning broadcast from a Detroit AM radio station, but in September they decided to upgrade to the next level with a television show. “The Best of Sacred Steel TV” now airs every Friday at 9 p.m. on Buckeye Cable System’s public access channel 69. The show, also available on YouTube, is hosted by the Graces and broadcast out of a studio in their basement.
In addition to the TV show, CDs and DVDs, Del and Kelli also play in a live band, The Amazing Grace Praise Band. Del plays the steel guitar, Kelli offers vocals and spoken word, her brother Jay Caver plays six-string guitar, Del Ray Grace Jr. plays bass and Chris Pope plays drums. The band has also featured several vocalists. Kelli said the band has had to turn down some gigs, once because a venue owner liked the music, but wanted them to leave out the message.
“They wanted us to play, but they didn’t want us to sing anything about Jesus,” she said.
Del then added, “We’ve got jobs, we’re not struggling, so we’re not going to do that. Jesus is the foundation of our lives. If you can’t have that, you can’t have us.”
The couple hosts an annual sacred steel showcase every year, as well. The next is planned for Aug. 23-24 at Mays Chapel United Holy Church, 1201 S. Byrne Road.
Del said he and Kelli will continue to find new ways to spread the sacred steel message, and bring others in to share the experience of the community.
“It’s been a great ride and a great learning experience,” Del said.