The DIY Musician: Introducing Nikki D Brown, the Jimi Hendrix of Sacred Steel

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“I don’t go to church, but I would go to that church.”

That statement was the most common response given by readers when we posted the viral video (below) of Nikki D getting sanctified on her lap steel two months ago.

In moves that would rival any heavy metal video, Nikki makes the notes scream, headbanging around her axe, grinding the strings against the stand at one point, and catches a high note, only to let it sustain while she starts to "church dance" around. 

It’s the perfect combination of chops and showmanship. If Jimi Hendrix played Sacred Steel, he’d sound and act like Nikki D.

If you’re a little late to the game, Sacred Steel is a musical style and African-American gospel tradition of using lap steel and pedal steel guitars in church. It originally developed in a group of related Pentecostal churches in the 1930s. Robert Randolph is probably one of the most famous of the Sacred Steel players. Nikki D is also carrying the flag, in her own wild and totally unique way.

Her real name is Nicolle Brown, but she’s better known as Nikki “D” of Nikki D and the Browns, a.k.a. Sisters of Thunder. They’re a hard rocking, family-based gospel group from Toledo, Ohio, with as much energy as a nuclear power plant.  

“Our style is considered traditional quartet gospel,” she says, “and we’re known for adding familiar cover tunes to the format.”

Instead of just watching her viral video and sharing it on my Facebook timeline, I decided to track Nikki D down and learn more about her music. 

So what’s your background? How long have you been playing?

It’s been 34 years total. I’ve been playing since the age of 10, but in my twenties, I didn’t play as much. About seven years ago, I started playing on a more regular basis.

Are you part of the Sacred Steel movement in churches? 

I feel I am a part of the movement, but I don’t play at church services like I used to when I was younger. I mainly do our annual Sacred Steel Showcase in August and for my group when we go out and perform [in non-church service concerts].

What’s your live rig?

I have two lap steel guitars. One is a vintage 1951 six-string National Chicagoan, which I refer to as “Cali.” The other is a 1952 six-string Rickenbacker S-100, which is called “Speckles.” I also have a 10-string Lloyd Green Sho-Bud pedal steel that I call “Steel Prayzn.” They all carry a unique sound, and I love to play them out of my Fender amp and Morley Wah pedal. My slide is a Shubb steel slide bar. 

What is one of the greatest concerts you ever played, and why was it awesome?

It was the 2014 Lowell Folk Festival in Lowell, Massachusetts. The show was all ages, races, cultures, religions and nationalities, all enjoying our music. The stage and audiences were electrifying and energetic. The response we got was so fulfilling. We had an atheist even following us around at the different stages we performed, and that will stay in my heart and mind forever.

Nikki D and the Browns can be seen live in the Toledo area. Check out their Facebook for more live videos and upcoming gigs. (Nikki says they'll be part of an April 10 “Tribute to Living Legends” show. Although no event listing has been created yet, I’m sure she’ll be posting it on her Facebook page.) Although she has yet to release an album, one of Nikki’s performances was captured on the DVD The Queens of Sacred Steel.

Shane Speal is the "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.