Most musicians can lay down a long list of artists who’ve been inspirations, but steel-funk man A.J. Ghent is a bit different. The Atlanta-based artist has never been the kind of music fanatic who absorbs everything from David Bowie B-sides to Bob Dylan bootlegs.
“Believe it or not, I’m really working on listening to more music. I was never a huge, huge music listener,” admits Ghent, vocalist and slide-guitarist. “You know, as a kid you hear what you hear — although I do find myself relying on that music that I didn’t listen to. And now I’m studying and listening to music like your Parliament and James Brown and Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix — just learning what I missed, basically.”
Ghent’s race to catch up on his newfound heroes is going rather well seeing as how his music is now a lush blend of the Godfather of Soul and Redding. Two years ago, Ghent joined forces with a few friends (bassist Seth Watters, drummer Will Groth, and guitarist/saxophonist Gary Paulo). They jammed together and quickly realized they could be onto something. Ghent then added his wife Marla and sister Tiffany Ghent Belle to the mix as vocalists. The ladies also give the act a bit of sex appeal. “They help us look good,” the always sharp-suited musician says. “Anyone who comes to see us wants to see the girls.”
Although the ladies are indeed key ingredients to the A.J. Ghent Band, the group’s signature sound lies in the magic Ghent works with a lap-steel guitar — an instrument that’s been in his family for generations. At the church he grew up attending, Ghent’s family members were like celebrities, playing for the congregation in bands where steel guitar was the lead instrument. His father even coined the term “sacred steel” to describe the way they worshipped. “Sacred steel music is our music derived from gospel, church, and from my grandfather, father, and many, many others,” he says.
But Ghent is the first to confess his own music isn’t as sacred. “What separates us is that I played a little bit in church through the years, but I was in and out,” Ghent explains. “My mother and father got a divorce, and I was away from church for a while. And that’s when I began to receive influence from other styles of music and became pretty much who I am today.”
Because he didn’t get to see his steel-guitarist dad as much after the divorce, Ghent wanted to impress him even more — though that meant learning to play the lap-steel guitar on his own. His self-taught lessons began before he even hit puberty. “Age nine is when I had the passion for it. I probably didn’t start to sound good for years and years later, although I thought I did,” Ghent laughs. “You know how that goes.”
Whether the musician is playing lap-steel while standing for a jammed-out cover of “Let the Devil Ride” or flexing his vocal muscles in “A Change is Gonna Come,” Ghent’s bluesy, Southern soul is certainly worth hearing these days. The band also has a collection of originals they hope to record and release soon, like the soul-funk single “Elevator Love.” And no, it’s nothing like that Aerosmith song.
“It’s about relationships — you know, the ups and downs of a relationship,” Ghent says. “The truth and lies about love — sometimes you love me up, sometimes you love me down — and it’s not always a beautiful thing.”
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