In light of America's media saturation, it was all but unthinkable that a new musical genre would emerge, fully formed, in the final stages of the 20th century. Where would such a thing hide from the voracious pop-culture machine?
In church, as it turns out -- or as Alvin Lee, leader/guitarist of the Lee Boys, says, "inside the four walls."
The music, known as "sacred steel," came into being in the 1930s, when a man named Willie Eason introduced the Hawaiian steel guitar as a sonic focal point of the roof-raising services of the House of God church, a Pentecostal sect prominent in Florida and elsewhere in the South. The vocal quality in his playing commented on and punctuated the preacher's orations.
Over the decades, this gospel micro-genre was handed down, expanded upon, incorporated into full bands and, finally, brought to the secular market. After building a small cult audience in the 1990s, the style broke out early this decade when a young guy from New Jersey named Robert Randolph brought his dazzling technique and charisma to the jam-band circuit. The Lee Boys are among a handful of sacred steel bands following Randolph's lead and actively seeking acclaim outside the church.
It's a music that translates well to secular ears. Blessed with the same up-tempo bounce of conventional black gospel music, sacred steel is indeed a joyful noise. But instead of delivering long vocal exhortations praising Jesus, sacred steel musicians are more apt to jam out.
That's where the pedal steel comes in. The instrument is best known for the swooping cry it lends to country music, but in the hands of a sacred steel player it becomes a tool for fiery solos. They hew to a single-string technique and emit a sound more akin to blues slide guitar.
Roosevelt Collier, the 20-something steel player for the Lee Boys, generates thick, syrupy lines, often doctored with wah-wah and other effects, and routinely plays at breakneck velocity.
"When [Randolph] hit, it was like, 'Hold up, why not follow him?' Try to go mainstream with it," says Collier, a graduate of Jacksonville, FL's Edward Waters College. "He's definitely opened up so many doors."
When Collier was 13, he was practically forced into playing pedal steel by his uncle Glenn Lee, who with his brother Alvin, formed the nucleus of the Lee Boys' second generation. Over a decade ago, Glenn didn't know he was grooming his successor.
Growing up in the 1970s, Alvin and his brother Glenn, who was two years younger, were inseparable. Their father, Robert E. Lee, was pastor of the House of God church in Perrine, FL, near Miami. While strict, he allowed his youngest sons to attend public school, take music lessons and, if they were discreet about it, listen to secular music. "We grew up with a lot of country music, like Roy Rogers," says Alvin, who now lives in Orlando. "But also Michael Jackson. Glenn loved Elvis Presley. I loved a lot of jazz, like Stanley Clarke and George Benson, and '80s funk bands."
In the family's church ensemble, Glenn took over the pedal steel from his aging father, while Alvin concentrated on bass. When Alvin was 13, his home congregation hosted a Church of God state assembly, with a number of the top steel players in attendance. Robert E. Lee lobbied to have his sons appear, and they were given a slot during the offering. The young duo wowed the packed house of worshippers.
The Lee band forged a growing reputation in the House of God ranks, and Glenn ascended as a music minister. "He had a special gift," Alvin says.
In 1990, a man named Bob Stone left his job as a mechanical engineer and joined the state-run Florida Folklife Program. He heard about a South Florida music shop that sold pedal steel guitars and accessories to black gospel musicians. The rookie folklorist researched the oddity and was knocked out by the celebratory flavor of the music. In 1992, Stone went to a House of God state assembly and heard Glenn Lee and other steel virtuosos.
Stone landed $13,000 in grant money and set out to track down and document the style. Part of the money was used to print 400 cassettes of his field recordings, one of which found its way to the small but influential folk label Arhoolie Records. In the mid-1990s, the California-based imprint released its first in a series of compilations dubbed Sacred Steel, a name credited to Stone.
In February of 2000, family patriarch Robert E. Lee died suddenly of natural causes. That July, Glenn Lee was diagnosed with cancer. He passed on in October. "There were five brothers and three sisters, but it was always me and Glenn; we fed off each other," Alvin says, still wistful years later. "We went to church Wednesday, Friday, Sunday morning and Sunday night. When he died, it was over for me -- I had no more interest in playing within the four walls. It just reminded me so much of Glenn."
But Alvin Lee wasn't through with sacred steel. He put together a band that included brothers Keith and Derrick on vocals, and three of his sisters' sons: bassist Alvin Cordy, drummer Kenneth Earl Walker and Glenn's protégé Roosevelt Collier on pedal steel.
Soon, the Lee Boys were ready for their first gig outside the four walls. In 2001, they showcased at a folk fest in Jacksonville, FL, which led to a two-week tour of Canada, starting with a slot on the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Nova Scotia.
Alvin says that the band still gets knocked by some of the older, more tradition-minded church members, but the idea of taking sacred steel to the world is gaining acceptance. The Lee Boys released their spirited debut CD, Say Yes, on Arhoolie last year.
As it turns out, Alvin resumed making music inside the four walls, albeit on a much smaller scale. He plays some steel as well, and performs at services with his 9-year-old nephew at his home church in Paltaka.
Alvin views playing secular shows -- be it part of a blues fest or opening for B.B. King, Buddy Guy or Ani DiFranco -- as a ministry, but not in the truest evangelical sense.
"It's not us preaching come to Jesus," he explains. "If [people] do, that's good, but they come to it through our music, through the steel. It's the closest voice to heaven; that's what we call that steel. Making people feel better -- that's the essence of our music."