Some old-fashioned music magic happened in a studio in Toledo, Ohio, last year.
Australian slide guitarist Dom Turner, of Backsliders fame, and gifted electric lap steel guitarist Nikki Brown had been corresponding by email for some time but had never met. Turner, you see, had an inkling that his style of blues and her Sacred Steel skills could work together on an album.
So he jumped on a plane to meet Brown and her sisters Gloria (rhythm guitar and vocals) and Belinda (bass guitar and vocals), as well as her cousin Tomika (drums and vocals) at the US studio.
They had just three hours to collaborate on a project neither musician had actually defined. Somehow they found common ground between his soulful blues and her southern US church gospel and the result is Sliding Steel, a mini-album by the newly-formed Turner Brown Band, and an Australian tour. More albums are to come.
Brown was taught by steel guitar master Del Grace and has been described as the “Jimi Hendrix of Sacred Steel”. A lifetime of gospel singing has given her a powerfully rich, raspy soul-gospel vocal style delivered with impeccable flare and flamboyancy.
“I’d always been interested in the sort of music Nikki played, which is called Sacred Steel,” Turner tells Weekender.
“It’s a style that goes back about 70 years and the story is that an African American musician came into a church one day and started playing a lap steel guitar rather than an organ, and it took off.
“The steel guitar is used differently in this context than it is in, say, country or Hawaiian music. It is very vocal like, and that appealed to me because that’s the way I approach my slide guitar.”
Having two distinct sounds from a similar instrument is like having two different vocalists in a band. They both tell a story, but in a different tone.
“It’s unusual to have two slide guitar players in one band, not that it hasn’t been done before,” Turner explains.
“We were only in the studio for about three hours one afternoon and it was surprising what we came up with in that time. It was more like what you’d do over a week.
“Going for Blood is the first track and we wrote it in the studio as we were recording and it’s worked out to be the song we are happiest with, too. It’s funny how that works.
“We tried to work out common songs and we ended up not having many to draw on as a starting point, aside from Amazing Grace. So Nikki would throw a song at me and I’d throw one back and it felt like we’d been playing together forever.”
Turner has spent a lot of time in the US over the years, working with artists the calibre of John Jasckson. His favourite blues region is the northern part of Mississippi where there is a crossover between gospel and blues “where they almost meld into one but not quite”.
“In Australia we don’t have the raw and real and very human and natural sounding church music that the US has,” Turner says.
“Unlike secular music, there is no financial gain in Sacred Steel music. It’s purely played for musical reasons.
“For the sisters to go outside of the church is a pretty big thing. They’ve been brought up playing music for nothing, just for the love of music, and I think that makes it even purer.
“It’s incredible to see the music played in its natural form. It’s a continuous tradition, it hasn’t been broken in any way. In other words it’s just passed down from parents to children and back around again.
“It’s music for music’s sake.”
Turner hopes Australian audiences will connect with and learn from a crossing of musical borders and traditions each night of the show.
“I think it’s going to be a real education for people. It’s not going to be overly churchy, if you know what I mean, but it is so powerful,” he explains.
“This is their first time out of the US, too, so it’s a big thing for them. They’re very excited about it – in fact excited is not a strong enough word to describe it.”