Seven years ago, the Campbell Brothers released an album that shed light not only on the band, but an entire subgenre of gospel music. The Campbells play sacred steel, a strain of gospel driven by lap- and pedal-steel guitars for a sound that’s hardly sanctimonious. If you didn’t pay attention to the lyrics, you might guess you’re listening to a contemporary funk or R&B band.
Sacred steel has a long and vibrant history dating to the 1930s, but it’s been slow to catch on with casual fans. When the Campbell Brothers released “Can You Feel It?,” which put a modern spin on traditional tunes such as “Amazing Grace,” it seemed the ensemble was on the verge of success that blurred the line between sacred and secular.
“We’ve been through quite a bit since that album,” Chuck Campbell, one of the group’s founding members and its pedal-steel player, says on the phone from Rochester, N.Y., where the band is based. “We were in a lawsuit with the church.”
Campbell, who brings the Campbell Brothers to the Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday, is referring to the very church that nurtured the band early on. It’s a convoluted story, but essentially the House of God Church, Keith Dominion, where the Campbells first developed their style as the house band, sued Chuck, his brother Phil, and their father. Church leaders asserted they had abused nonprofit funds allocated for a series of projects the Campbells were commissioned to do, including a DVD, an album, and a book.
“They claimed that we misused the nonprofit funds. For instance, we bought hard drives and computers for digital recording. They looked at that as we were using the computers for our personal use,” Campbell says. “We set up a [bank] account in the church’s name, which is a nonprofit. At that point, you’re vulnerable to nonprofit rules about uses of the money. If we had put it in our name, as the contractor we would have been fine. We learned an important lesson there.”
Campbell says the fiasco was compounded by the fact that church officials didn’t want the Campbells’ father to become leader of the church. Campbell says the lawsuit was used as ammunition to keep his father from ascending the church’s ranks.
The lawsuit, which initially dragged out from 2005 to 2009, amounted to around $275,000, Campbell says. After the civil suit was thrown out of court, the church appealed and the ordeal lasted another year. The Campbells were never found guilty and never had to pay anything — aside from $50,000 to $60,000 in legal expenses, according to Campbell — but it irreversibly damaged the band’s relationship, both personal and professional, with the House of God.
“As it stands now, Campbell Brothers no longer have a local church that we’re associated with,” Campbell says.
“You go to different churches, but it’s a little different in that the House of God Church was the only church where I felt like the music was based around the way we would play steel,” he adds. “It was a free-for-all, almost like a jam band situation in a church. It’s different going to other churches, although I enjoy their services and definitely enjoy their messages. But it’s a totally different vibe.”
With the lawsuit in the rearview mirror, Campbell is looking onward and upward. He says it’s time for the Campbell Brothers to get back where they belong — in front of audiences. He and brother Darick, who plays lap steel, have a new project called the Slide Brothers, which went on the road with the “Experience Hendrix” tour a few years ago. And in anticipation of a new album, the Campbell Brothers are exploring older gospel — “Mahalia Jackson-type of stuff,” Campbell says.
“[The lawsuit] ended up being a blessing in disguise, in that it freed us from the dogma of the church,” Campbell says. “There was always trepidation as to which way we should go. And now that’s gone. That’s why I’m able to go on the Hendrix tour without thinking about it.”
Campbell says his band’s audience is broad, partly because the Campbell Brothers put an emphasis on uplift rather than a specifically religious message.
“We have everything from teenagers to older people, from people who come from a church background to people who are into roots music,” he says. “That’s our core audience.”
But that nondenominational approach has come at a price, he says.
“We were criticized early on because we’ve never been a ‘come to Jesus’ [kind of band]. If you enjoy what we’re doing, and you want to learn more about it, we’ll point you to churches,” Campbell says. “We’ve been criticized for not having an altar call or a mass prayer at our concerts, but we’re not there for that. Our concerts are not about us. We’re there to join in with the audience and share our praise for God.”