Story by Aaron Greenhood
The House of God sits atop a hill on a residential road on the outskirts of Mt. Airy. Soft light filters in from the stained glass windows over the quiet church sanctuary. The Sacred Steel band the Allen Boys, a pair of brothers and two cousins, discuss their song order as they set up equipment in the middle of the room. For them, nothing could feel more natural. After all, under this same roof these young men learned their instruments, found faith, and developed their lifelong connection—all central forces in each of their lives.
Sacred Steel is the musical tradition of the House of God Pentecostal church, a division of The Church of the Living God, established by Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate, in 1903. While it didn’t find its way to the church until the thirties, the expressive voice of the steel guitar became central to its identity. The steel guitar is characterized by nearly infinite sustain and smooth shifts between notes mimicking the rise and fall of the human voice. When amplified, it takes on an even greater range, delivering deep gravelly groans, piercing whelps, ethereal chord voicings, and percussive strums. Today, the tradition of Sacred Steel animates House of God services in 22 states, and its influence has found its way into secular music through such performers as the Campbell Brothers and Robert Randolph.
On January 7, 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Allen Boys members Mitchel Fonville, Ranzy Moore, Camron Moore, and E. J. Trice met at their home church to record a set for a streaming performance series launched that month by the Nash County Arts Council. Grounded features intimate performances by North Carolina’s emerging voices in Southern roots music; the deep cultural roots of the musicians showcased gave the series its name. It celebrates the significance, diversity, and vitality of the artists while connecting viewers to a sense of place and community.
Prior to the set, Grounded’s producer Aaron Greenhood sat down with bassist Mitchel Fonville and guitarist Camron Moore to learn more about The Allen Boys and Sacred Steel. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:
Aaron Greenhood: Will you start by telling me about this church and its significance to the Allen Boys?
Camron Moore: This church has significance to me because it's where I grew up, it is where my entire family grew up, from our Dad’s side and Mom’s side as well. Being here is what helped shape the style of music we play as a band. Us just being in church for so long is what has created what I like to call the vibe, our sound.
Mitchel Fonville: To me, this is where Sacred Steel comes from in the state of North Carolina. We are the traveling band of the Mt. Airy church, so we are proud of it.
Aaron Greenhood: Sacred Steel gets its name from the steel guitar. Will you describe the role the steel guitar plays in the House of God church?
Mitchel Fonville: For the House of God, it is actually the organ—as the organ is to most other churches. It is the music; it's also sometimes the singer. At certain parts of the service, someone’s up there giving their testimony and you can hear the steel just singing in the background. It's like another voice. It's the voice of the House of God.
Aaron Greenhood: Musically, you were all trained in the church from a very young age. How did that work? Did you learn with a teacher?
Mitchel Fonville: No, none of us really had a teacher other than each other. Deacon Moore played guitar and our uncle Bernard Allen, he played bass. So, it was really just taking what they knew and expanding on it. Cam can back me up on this. One of the bass lines that we all learned first was Bu-du-du-du, Bu-du-du-du, Bu and you added it to everything, but what we learned was you put your personal signature on that little line and from there, it was the same drum beat and then you would take it to the guitar, you would take it to the steel, or, in Camron’s case, take it to the keyboard, and we would just expand on what we learned.
My mother, who is the pastor of the church now, Elder Melody Fonville, if we wanted to learn something, she would provide the instrument. It's your job to figure out what to do with it or how to play it but that’s what it was.
Aaron Greenhood: So you talked a bit about how the Sacred Steel tradition is a big part of the Allen Boys sound. Has coming up in Mt. Airy had an influence on your sound?
Camron Moore: You know, Mt Airy, its Mayberry, Andy Griffith town, small town USA. It's just what we know.
Mitchel Fonville: When you hear the different Sacred Steel groups, you hear different styles of music. With ours, being in Mt Airy, being in a southern part, that’s where you get your southern rock. You hear little parts of that, you get a little blues, you hear some funk, and then, every once in a while, you get that banjo sound from a steel, or that downhome country sound because, being around here, they’re in your ear.
Aaron Greenhood: When you guys perform, it strikes me that it's not just about entertainment. Can you tell me about the spiritual aspect of the Allen Boys music?
Mitchel Fonville: Sacred Steel is a feel-good music, it's a spiritual music, so we don’t want to just play for the ear; we want to play for the body and for the soul. We have a term we like to use: FAYD. Regardless of what's going on in your situation today, last week, whatever it is, Forget About Your Day. When we get to that level, where you forget that it's music and it becomes a medicine, that’s what Sacred Steel is all about.
Camron Moore: When we start playing, we do the same exact thing. If we’ve got stuff that’s going on, in other aspects of life, we start playing, we start connecting, it helps us to forget about our day. It's like, I’m in the moment, and from a spiritual and mental headspace everything is fine and I’m just enjoying what I’m getting right now.
Mitchel Fonville: A lot of our shows end up like a service, regardless of how we intend for them to be, once that music spirit comes in, and the audience has let go, ’cuz you have to let go to fall into the trance. You have to let go and let the music lead you, just like in service, once that next level hits and the spirit rises, that bass drum just Umph, Umph, Umph, just pumping everything, then that’s when you are able to FAYD.
To learn more about the history of Sacred Steel and the House of God church, check out the website of the Sacred Steel historian Del Ray Grace: sacredstrings.com.
Another great resource is the work of the folklorist Robert L. Stone, here: https://arhoolie.org/the-robert-stone-sacred-steel-archive/.