With a legacy of legendary steel guitar players in his family, AJ Ghent is carrying the torch and is the only one to play the steel guitar standing up, overhanded. MARLA GHENT PHOTO
BY GREG GARDNERLap steel guitar was introduced to the Southern Pentecostal House of God Church in Fort Pierce during the 1930s by Ghent’s great-uncle Willie Eason, the founder of the Sacred Steel Tradition. It is a specialized music art form being passed down from generation to generation.
“My grandfather, Henry Nelson, studied under my great-uncle Willie Eason and made the lap steel his own, creating the praise music that is popular in the (Fort Pierce) church where I am from,” said Ghent from his studio in Atlanta. “He would go on to play for and with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and others.”
“My father, Aubrey Ghent, took what his dad, Henry, was doing to another level and was the first player from the church to go outside of the church and play festivals and shows,” Ghent said. “My father and grandfather both heavily influence me as a person and a player. My family pioneered a sound now called Sacred Steel. The crazy thing is my dad taught himself as well.”
When Ghent was 5 years old, he wrote in his journal he wanted to play music all over the world, said his mother, Beverly Harris, a special education teacher at Fort Pierce Central High School. He will see his wish come true in March, when he begins a tour in Australia. From the fifth grade on, he locked himself in his room day and night, listening to cassette tapes of his father and grandfather’s music to learn to play the lap steel guitar, she said.
“He was a focused young man and so dedicated, I would have to make him go outside and play,” Harris said. “He is self-taught, but he absolutely inherited his ability. The connection is so genetic. People who listened to his dad can feel it when they hear him play.”
Harris said her son promised her he would finish high school, but said he would be gone playing music after that. True to his word, a week after graduation, Ghent moved in with his older sister, Tiffany, in West Palm Beach and they formed a band. She still occasionally joins him on the road to play shows.
“When I was in West Palm Beach, it was a very vibrant music scene and it was great making music there,” Ghent said.
Just as his father broke ground by taking the music outside the church, the younger Ghent has changed the industry by building a custom made stand-up steel guitar. Ghent said he is the only person who plays the instrument overhanded while standing, allowing him mobility to dance and jump around. “AJ was born to fly,” his biography says.
In a strange coincidence, Elker Harris (no relation to his mother) taught Ghent music at a Bradenton elementary school and again at Fort Pierce Magnet School of the Arts. “AJ rose to the challenge every time and his music changes the lives of people,” said Harris, dean at Lincoln Park Academy and a big fan of Ghent’s music. “He is committed to being excellent and he exudes this great talent. And he is a very, very humble guy and you don’t always find that in musicians.”
While playing on the road, Ghent met his wife, MarLa, who is the other half of the current band arrangement. He plays stand-up steel and she sings, plays synthetic bass, keyboard and drums. They decided to move to Atlanta in 2012, which turned into a career boosting move for the couple.
Ghent found side and studio session work, but his big break came when he fell in with the “legendary” Colonel Bruce Hampton and was invited to play with his band, Pharaoh’s Kitchen. “The Colonel always talked about the things that matter, like time, tone and space,” Ghent said. “Those are all key ingredients for making great musical art. Playing with Pharaoh’s Kitchen introduced me to a scene and a network of people I didn’t know, but they knew my family heritage.”
In 2015, Ghent released an 11-song DVD/CD Live at Terminal West, filmed and recorded in the old King Plow factory in Atlanta.
Ghent has opened for The Allman Brothers Band, Derek Trucks, Robert Cray and Government Mule. His band’s lineup has ranged from a trio to a full size live band with horns. His largest audience so far was when he opened for Zac Brown two nights at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
Ghent will release his second CD, The Neo Blues Project, in mid-March and play at the Sunrise Black Box Theatre in Fort Pierce on March 30. The CD was written, recorded, mixed, and produced at The Ghent Factory Studio in Atlanta.
AJ (Aubrey Junior) GHENT (J-ent)
Lives in: Atlanta
Family: Wife MarLa
Education: Fort Pierce Magnet School of the Arts and Palm Vista Christian School
Who/What inspires me: “Life and my family.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “I love macaroni and cheese.”