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The Secret of Steel 

Fran Grace and her brother, Del Grace Sr., bring upbeat gospel music via lap steel and electric guitar.

click to enlarge Del Grace Sr. and his sister, Fran Grace, will be performing at the Richmond Folk Festival in what will be Fran's first appearance on sacred steel guitar outside of "showcases under the control of the church."

Del Grace Sr. and his sister, Fran Grace, will be performing at the Richmond Folk Festival in what will be Fran's first appearance on sacred steel guitar outside of "showcases under the control of the church."

Fran Grace is bringing a century-old tradition to the Richmond Folk Festival. According to her brother, musician, and genre historian Del Grace Sr., it remains one of the few roots musical styles that has not been commercially coopted or compromised. “It is taught through the oral tradition,” he says. “You cannot go to Julliard and say, ‘teach me sacred steel.’ There are no manuscripts. I think it was done that way so that the music cannot be stolen. It is not on paper; it’s written in your heart.”

Played with fingerpicks and slide on a lap steel guitar, it is music originally designed to accompany praise and worship services, often replacing the traditional keyboards in two Pentecostal denominations/dominions: The Church of the Living God and the House of God Church. In the religious setting, the playing can add a swelling dramatic underpinning to a sermon or soar into ecstatic celebration in a gospel song. (In performance, Grace says, the focus will be on the latter.)

Guitarist Troman Eason introduced the instrument to the church. “He lived in Philadelphia in the 1930s, and heard someone playing Hawaiian guitar,” Grace says. “It wasn’t called the steel guitar until the 1980s. He called the station, contacted the Hawaiian guy, and took lessons in the Hawaiian style.” He and his sister Fran, both of whom were young church musicians, first heard sacred steel at regional church assemblies, fell in love with the sound, and brought it back to their home congregation, the Stateline Church of the Living God, located just south of the Michigan/Ohio border.

“I grew up with marching bands and jazz bands,” Grace Sr. says. “I could never understand why sacred steel was never represented on a larger platform. That was what sparked my interest in preserving it.” He is organizing a museum dedicated to the form, and has provided a unique, handmade, double-necked guitar, made from scratch by his wife’s uncle Felton Williams Jr for display at the Smithsonian Institution. His advocacy, and steel guitar resulted in his induction into the Sacred Steel Hall of Fame in 2015. Fran Grace was one of five female players inducted in 2019.

Moving into secular spaces is part of building awareness.

“[The Richmond Folk Festival] is actually Fran’s first performance outside of showcases under the control of the church,” Grace says. “I am coming along as her manager, and to play a couple of selections to give her a break. She will be backed by a family group, the Amazing Grace Praise Band, an ensemble featuring her sister, son, nephew, and brother-in-law. And she will have a CD for sale.”

What should audiences expect? “That is a tough thing to describe,” he says. “It is toe-tapping, upbeat gospel music for dance, worship, and praise. It is not the total church experience, but it gets you on the pathway.”

Fran Grace plays the CarMax stage on Saturday, Oct. 8 from 6:15 to 7 p.m. On Sunday, Oct. 9 she plays from 12:00-12:45 p.m. on the Altria Stage and returns to the CarMax stage for a final performance from 5:05-5:45 p.m. Go here for a complete schedule of performers.

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