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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The organ is a familiar instrument in church and many Baptist and Pentecostal congregations have full bands. But what about a steel guitar? Well, for one denomination it's a common sight. The Church of the Living God is where Robert Randolph first learned to play in the tradition known as sacred steel. He brought the style to clubs and concert halls around the world.

In the latest installment of our series Ecstatic Voices: Sacred Music in America, Matt Sakakeeny takes us to one a small church in Toccopola, Mississippi, just outside Oxford. There, he reports, the steel guitar is integral to the congregation's sense of faith and community.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MATT SAKAKEENY, BYLINE: Some say the purpose of church is to deliver the word of God. If so, what's the role of music in the service?

BISHOP CALVIN WORTHEM: The music has always been a part of God's way of getting people's attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAKAKEENY: Bishop Calvin Worthem is the pastor at the Church of the Living God.

WORTHEM: And sometimes he speaks through the thunder, the lightning. Sometimes he speaks in the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND CLAPPING)

SAKAKEENY: Music is a kind of delivery mechanism, says choir director Mary Worthem. It not only helps get people's attention, it helps them get the meaning.

MARY WORTHEM: You know, if there's something they need to be listening to or God is giving a message through the song, they need to hear what it's saying, not just the sound and the music but they need to hear the words of it.

CHOIR: Oh, I don't want to be lost. I don't want to be lost...

SAKAKEENY: At the Church of the Living God, there's another way of receiving God's message: through the lap steel.

(SOUNDBITE OF A LAP STEEL)

SAKAKEENY: It sits on four legs like the pedal steel used in country music, but it's simpler to play. It looks kind of like a miniature ironing board. It's got eight or nine strings and the guitarist uses a metal bar to glide across them, allowing him to slide between the notes of the scale and mimic the wailing sound of gospel singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAKAKEENY: Here in Toccopola, the lap steel's in the capable hands of Jerry Flemons or, as he puts it, his hands are guided by the spirit.

JERRY FLEMONS: Our body can play all the time, you know, but if the spirit, the anointing, isn't there, it's just music played, you know. So, it takes the anointing, it takes God to bring it to pass; to make it materialize.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAKAKEENY: During the service, Bishop Worthem might dance as much as he preaches, and parishioners leave their pews, raising their hands toward the sky as they strut down the aisles. Cheryl Flemons often leads the church in song.

CHERYL FLEMONS: There's a certain clap, stomp, clap, stomp rhythm that's just part of our church.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING AND SINGING)

FLEMONS: I've had some friends that come and they're just really amazed by it, like, What's up with the rhythm? How is it that everybody has that same beat, that same rhythm?

SAKAKEENY: The shuffle has a bit of North Mississippi blues, but the basic musical formula can be heard throughout the Eastern U.S. It was established by the late Bishop Lorenzo Harrison. Decades ago, when the Church of the Living God split into several dominions, Harrison was the musical force behind the Jewell Dominion, headquartered in Indianapolis, where some of the services were recorded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAKAKEENY: Some slide guitarists have gained popularity outside the church, especially those from the related Keith Dominion, which is known for a flashier style played on the pedal steel. In the 1990s, a series of recordings called "Sacred Steel" helped pave the way for Robert Randolph's commercial success. But for guitarist Jerry Flemons, like his mentor Lorenzo Harrison, there's only one place for this music.

FLEMONS: It comes from God, see, and that's where it belongs, in the House of God. If you take it out and do other things with it, then you're not praising God with it; you're praising Satan. And people should use a gift from God to praise God and to comfort the soul of man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAKAKEENY: For Bishop Worthem and many others, the slide guitar doesn't just accompany the voice, it's a voice in its own right.

WORTHEM: Sometimes you don't have to say a word. If you'll just listen to the steel, sometimes there's a message in that music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAKAKEENY: From NPR News, I'm Matt Sakakeeny.

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