DaShawn & Wendy Hickman present Sacred Steel
“Pedal steel is the main instrument in the church I grew up in,” says DaShawn Hickman. “Where most churches have organs that lead their services, ours are led by pedal steel.”
One of the foremost contemporary practitioners of Sacred Steel, a blues-gospel tradition dating back to the Pentecostal-Holiness churches of the 1930s, Hickman grew up not only hearing the pedal steel in the tiny House of God church his family attended in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, but also listening to his mother play lap steel in their home. Hickman picked up the instrument at the age of 5, when his mother put it down to concentrate on ministering, and by the age of 12 his local reputation as a pedal steel player was such that he was regularly asked to play at other area churches.
After spending a year in his teens playing dobro in a local bluegrass band—“In Mt. Airy, if it’s not bluegrass, it’s not music,” he laughs—he formed a Sacred Steel group with three of his musically-inclined cousins. Originally named Mabel’s Boys (a salute to Hickman’s grandmother), the group found greater fame as The Allen Boys, North Carolina’s only touring Sacred Steel band.
Now, Hickman puts his own spin on the Sacred Steel tradition with [TITLE?], his beautiful, funky and supremely uplifting new seven-song album. Produced by Charlie Hunter (who also plays bass on the recordings), and featuring the soulful vocals of Hickman’s wife Wendy on several tracks, the forthcoming album shines a welcome spotlight on Hickman’s pedal steel brilliance, allowing the instrument’s considerable sonic and emotional range to be experienced in full. “Sacred Steel can be so bombastic, with heavy gospel-y drums and lots of other loud instruments, that you lose a lot of the beauty of the pedal steel,” Hunter explains. “It’s kind of like with vibes—when you hear people playing vibes alone, it’s astonishing how it just takes over; but the second the band starts playing, you lose so much of it. So I wanted this record to be really about the steel guitar having that entire area to itself.”
“I was doing a show in Greensboro, and Charlie came up during the break and said, ‘Man, you know what? I think we should do something together and get away from the blaring drums,’” laughs Hickman, who previously guested on Hunter and Lucy Woodward’s 2021 album I’m a Stranger Here. “Because that night, I will admit, the drummer really was going for broke. So I said, ‘Okay, let’s see what we can come up with.’ And about a week later, Charlie called me and said, ‘I think I got it—let’s just do it with steel guitar, bass and African drums!’ And I was like, ‘That sounds interesting!’”
For the drums, Hunter enlisted the help of master percussionists Atiba Rorie and Brevan Hampden. “Atiba’s more centered on West African percussion and Brevan is more centered on Afro-Cuban stuff, but between the two of them they can play literally anything,” says Hunter. “The connection between African percussion and Sacred Steel just felt like a real natural kind of thing to me, and I wanted to see what could happen if we put DaShawn in that kind of playground.”
Recorded by Benjy Johnson’s Earthtones Studio in Greensboro, NC, the album’s seven tracks include stirring interpretations of such classic spirituals as “Wade in the Water,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “I’m Going Home on the Morning Train.” “Charlie had asked me to pick some things that I thought would kind of showcase different sides—the mellow side, the ‘drive’ side and some jazzy things,” Hickman explains. “So I just went back in my head and thought of things I would hear my mom singing walking around the house, and stuff that I would hear in church. And that where these songs came from—stuff that kind of meant something to me.”
Though the musicians had only played one gig together prior to entering the studio, the sessions went smoothly, thanks in part to Johnson’s understanding of how to record Hickman’s pedal steel so as to fully do it justice. “A lot of engineers don’t really know how to mix a pedal steel, especially the way I play it,” Hickman says. “Typically, when you go up the neck on the high strings, it can kind of clip itself when you’re recording it; it sounds really buzz and fuzzy, and it’s there’s just no clarity to it. And where country steel players use a thin set of strings, I gauge my strings real heavy, because I find it gives me more sustain and it gets a little bit more bite out of the strings. So because of that, sometimes it can get distorted really heavy in a mix; but I’ve worked with Benjy on about six or seven other projects, so he knew exactly what it is I was looking for, and he knew how to dial it in. I realized that I could do just about anything I wanted to do on the pedal steel for these recordings, and it just opened everything up.”
Still, Hickman says it took him a little time to find his spot amid Rorie and Hampden’s rhythmic grooves. “At first, their rhythms just sounded all over the place to me,” he recalls. “Those guys would play one thing, stop the recording, go jump on something else, stop the recording, go jump on something else. And I was like, ‘Charlie, I don’t hear it. What’s the one? What’s the four? Where am I supposed to be?’ And he was like, ‘Oh man, don’t worry about it. When we get it all together, it’ll make sense.’ And sure to God, when it all came together, it was just magic. I tell you, man, after we’d done the first song, ‘Precious Lord,’ it was just five grown men sitting in there listening back to it and crying!”
Though it began as an experiment, Hickman says he sees the new record as an indicator of where he’s now heading musically. “Maybe I’ll be incorporating some other things into it, but this is definitely a direction that I plan on going. I feel like it’s more roots music; it really takes it back, especially with the African drums. You can’t get any closer to your roots than African drums,” he laughs. “What we’re doing can be labeled many things; it doesn’t have to just be gospel. My wife and I both grew up playing and singing in the church, but since we’ve been doing this now together for about the past three years, we’ve got into the bluegrass side of things and the Americana side of things, as well…
“We just want to spread love and joy to people,” he continues. “That’s our mission, me and my wife both. We love what we do, and we just want to take it out and let other people experience it, and be heard in the right manner.”