AJ Ghent’s history with sacred steel, the blend of Southern gospel music and the lap-steel guitar, goes back almost as far as the genre itself. The alternately crying and joyful wail of the guitar is in his blood. His grandfather, Henry Nelson, is one of the founders of the sacred steel rhythmic style, made most famous by Robert Randolph and the Family Band. His father, Aubrey, and great-uncle, Willie Eason, are two of sacred steel’s most revered players.
It has to be that history that’s shaped Ghent’s own mastery of the instrument; but his grasp extends far past the gospel music of sacred steel. On his new EP, the “The Neo Blues Project,” Ghent’s reach and control are astounding. He flows from churning mood pieces (“Do the Rump”) to lithe, slinky funk (“Wash Ya Hair”) to massive-sounding hard-rock stomp (“Power”) to intimate balladry (“Long Lost Friend”) with ease. His fluid, dizzying solos are stunning, but his secret weapon might just be his voice; it’s a deeply soulful instrument that shines especially brightly when he duets with his wife, Maria, part of his namesake band.
The combination of no-boundaries exploration and lap-steel skill exists because Ghent was both resistant to and then drawn toward his family’s legacy.
“Originally, I wanted to be a bass player,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t want to follow my family’s path at all. I guess as a kid, people would ask me, ‘Well, why don’t you do what your family’s doing?’ And I didn’t want to do that. I saw myself being some form of entertainer, but I didn’t want the responsibility.”
In his early teens, however, Ghent was given a lap-steel guitar by his cousin and began to fall in love with the sacred steel sound. “I got started and it just developed,” he says. “Before I knew it, I was 18, and I’d been doing it for years. I didn’t have a choice but to continue.”
As for his songwriting, that was encouraged by an English teacher who read one of Ghent’s poems and was so impressed by it, she was convinced it was plagiarized.
“She gave me an F on it because she didn’t believe I’d written it!” he says with a laugh. “So I took it home to my mom and said, ‘I don’t understand. I did write this.’ My mom called the school and said, ‘My son wrote this!’ From that point on, that encouraged me to write, and before I knew it I was writing songs.”
Despite his love of sacred steel, Ghent didn’t think of any specific genres when he began writing songs. “I was writing from the heart because when you’re that young, you’re not writing from any specific format,” he says. “You’re thinking about what you’re going through.”
About six years ago, Ghent moved from his native Florida to Atlanta to pursue music full time. It wasn’t long before word got out about the 25-year-old phenom, and he landed a gig as the singer for the legendary Southern jam-rock titan Col. Bruce Hampton (no slouch on the lap steel himself). That, in turn, led to Ghent sharing the stage with the Allman Brothers Band (he played “One Way Out” with them at the Beacon Theatre in New York), Derek Trucks, and the Zac Brown Band.
“It was a crazy whirlwind,” he says. “It didn’t happen overnight, and it took a lot of dedication, but before I knew it I was playing with all these incredible artists. I think I was just in the right place in the right time being seen by the right people. To some it may seem like, ‘Who is this guy? Does he deserve to be up there?’ But it was something that I’m proud of, and I learned a lot.”
One of the things that Ghent learned was when NOT to play, and that tasteful approach paid off in spades on “The Neo Blues Project.”
“When I first started playing, I wanted to do every move I could think of on that guitar,” he says. “After more experience I understood how important it was to take my time instead of playing whatever fast lick I can play. And that goes along with the songwriting. I ask myself, ‘If I were having a conversation with this person, what would I say next?’ I think it really helps me a lot.”
AJ Ghent w/ April B. & The Cool
When: Saturday, Feb. 3, 9 p.m.
Where: Gottrocks, 300 Eisenhower Drive
Tickets: $8 adv/$10 door
Info: 864-235-5519, www.gottrocksgreenville.com