Music » Music Features

Sacred Steel, Live

After rocking the House of God, the Lee Boys have taken their jubilant gospel on the road.



Mississippi Fred McDowell's definitive rendition of the traditional gospel tune "You Got To Move" is melancholy and meditative, a reminder that at the end of this life, another world awaits.

The Lee Boys' take on the song, which employs their trademark sacred steel-guitar riffs, a jubilant vocal style, and a steady country swing beat, blasts the roof off McDowell's ruminations, leaving an up-tempo, pew-rocking song in its wake.

"It gets the crowd dancing," confirms guitarist Alvin Lee, who will bring the Lee Boys, his family band, to the Gibson Music Showcase for a concert with former Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge and his group the Peacemakers Thursday, January 11th.

"That's the way we do it in the church," Lee continues. "It's like a praise jubilee -- you got to move when the Lord gets ready, which means you need to get touched, whatever you have in your life."

Like pedal steel virtuoso Robert Randolph, who exploded onto the jam-band scene a few years ago, the Lee Boys are currently coordinating a crossover plan that will take them from the House of God (where sacred steel music is an integral part of Sunday services) to nightclubs and music festivals, secular outlets that have been historically frowned upon by church elders.

"There are a lot of politics going on with [House of God] leaders," says Lee. "Nationally, I don't play [the churches] any more, but down south [the group hails from Perrine, Florida, which lies 20 miles south of Miami], we still go to our local church. My cousin is the pastor, my sister is the assistant pastor, and my family plays in the church band."

A decade ago, Lee's older brother Glenn Lee was recognized as one of the greatest sacred steel players to come out of the House of God church. He also played Hammond B-3 organ and saxophone, and he was tutored by some of the greatest pedal steel players on Nashville's session scene. In 1997, he was included on musicologist Robert Stone's field recordings of Florida sacred steel music, released on the Arhoolie Record label.

"My father [church pastor Robert E. Lee] died in February 2000, and that took a toll on the family," Lee recalls. "In July, Glenn went out of remission from cancer, and by October, he was gone. That really took me by storm, and I decided I'd do a dream of ours and spread our style of music outside the four walls. The Campbell Brothers had come out, Robert [Randolph] had come out, and I said we have to play our sound."

After recruiting teenage nephew Emanuel Roosevelt Collier, Lee's mission was launched, and the band began recording and touring. Their second album, Say Yes!, was released on Arhoolie in 2005, and exposure from the Folk Alliance led the Lee Boys to Canada for an extensive tour.

"Last year, we worked close to 70 shows, and we went on the road with Oteil on the Sweet Revival tour. We're planning to do more than a hundred shows this year," says Lee, "trying to hit it full-time and spread our style of music all over the place.

"We were born into this style of music, like Indian tribes who pass down their [folk] traditions," he maintains. "My uncle passed it to my dad, and he passed it to us. Dad was also a huge country fan. He loved to watch Hee Haw, and he'd listen to all the country players. When we'd go to Nashville, we'd always go to Dollywood.

"Now, we're passing all this to the next generation," he says of the group, which currently includes three original members and three nephews, including bassist Alvin Cordy Jr. and drummer Kenneth Earl Walker.

Emphasizing that the Lee Boys plan to keep their material gospel rather than purveying a soul and rock blend, à la Randolph, Lee says: "Not to take anything away from Robert, who's opened a lot of doors for us, but we're a sacred steel band. We're trying to stay within our original boundaries. You may hear us throw in a bluesy tune, but our music will always stem back to jubilant praise. It's feel-good [music] that gets into your heart and grows. It's a positive message.

"Our goal is to make the people feel good about what we're doing," he says. "We don't have to preach at them. Our message is, if we can touch one person through our music, then our job is done."

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