AJ Ghent comes from a family long hailed as progenitors of the Sacred Steel guitar. For himself, AJ has taken the inspiration of his forefathers and combined it with modern innovation to create a sound that’s as unique as it is powerful. His debut studio album, The Neo Blues Project, was a slick mix of R&B, funk, soul, and blues that showcased AJ’s “singing guitar” and passion– but as strong it was and still is, it’s only the warm-up.
AI- The last time you spoke to [us], you’d just learned that your wife was pregnant. First, congratulations on that– and second how are you enjoying fatherhood?
AJ- Ha! I’m loving it! I’m loving it. You know, my kid, he’s at the majority of all my shows and I’m trying to get him at a point where he’s just soaking every single thing on stage in. So he’s gonna be ready to get up there soon (laughs)!
That was gonna be my next question– if you’re havin’ the whole family out on the road?
I am. Yep, I am. It’s definitely a learning process, but I think every moment in the process is perfect, man, because you at least get to share it with the people and the child– you know? Just letting him know, “Hey, you grew up on the road just as well as I did!”
I have friends who also perform and tour and recently started taking their kids out because they don’t want to see that separation of lifestyles. Like, “This is our family and this is what we do.” Of course, you growing up with the legacy of your family in the Sacred Steel and that style of music, you’ve kind of seen that firsthand. Do you think that’s made it easier for you to take your family in that direction?
Oh, most definitely! I grew up going from revival to revival, whether it was my dad, it was my grandparents– and that’s what we did. I was a baby traveling, so that process definitely does make it easy knowing for my child because you know the “do’s” and the “don’ts” and then you know the “okays”. And of course, this is my firstborn– well, first child period– and everything is a learning process. “Oh, is he supposed to do this?” and “Is he supposed to do that?” or “Don’t do this, don’t do that!” But again, a learning situation and definitely, it made it easy just knowing that I went through the same process growing up.
We’re just barely passed a year from when you released The Neo Blues Project. You’ve had time for that album to breathe, and I know it’s been embraced and found an audience. How are you feeling about it now, a year removed?
I think I feel even better about it now than I did when it came out. Not that I wasn’t confident in it because I knew it was going to be something different and powerful– but I’m just so happy about it now. We just announced this past week that it got picked up for the Game of Thrones and their playlist– you know, the song “Power”.
I saw that post
Yeah! And right when I saw it, [I thought] maybe, you know, it’s died down a little bit (laughs). And then somebody says, “Uh-uh! We love it!” So I’m even more happy and excited about it now than I was.
Are you feeling compelled yet to get back into the studio or do you feel like you’ve got some time?
Oh, well, we’re already back in! We actually just finished up the latest project that’s going to be out soon. I won’t say too much because I don’t want to give this huge expectation, but I will say we’re looking to have it completed and out really, really soon. It may be a surprise, but I would say really soon. It’s going to be a fantastic project. It’s going to be a little bit different. I wanted it to be able to capture everything that’s done on stage. I wanted to be able to capture that in the studio and along with that, I just wanted to make a classic record. I listened back to some of the Beatles stuff and just the way they recorded. I wanted that old school feel and vibe. I wanted it to be organic, so it’s going to be one of those albums. And I think everybody’s going to love it.
You have your own studio, correct?
I do, yes.
Did you do principal recording there?
I didn’t. The Neo Blues Project happened in my studio. I actually went down to a studio in Atlanta, and like I say, not to give the surprise away, but I wouldn’t say…
A few details won’t hurt.
(Laughs) Well, I’ll put it this way, it’s one of those old studios that’s still standing– and I will say a lot of different legends have come through it. American Sushi. I don’t know if anybody’s familiar with it but like I say, it’s one of those vintage, old school, just-go-for-it type studios. Yeah, so you know, again, (laughs) not to give away too many details, we went in and we recorded it… It was setting up, go for it… There’s not a whole lot of stoppin’ and fixin’ this, fixin’ that part… What you’re hearing is natural, and it was probably one take type stuff. It’s organic and I love it. I’m in love with the project. Like I said, I know everybody else is gonna love it too.
You don’t have to tell all your secrets, but do you have any special guest stars poppin’ up on the album?
(Laughs) Believe it or not, I will say I do not have any special guests on this project. Well, (laughs) the only special guests, you know, are me and the singin’ guitar!
Yes, that one’s always the focal point! And speaking of focal points, you’ve been careful to explain that what you do in the AJ Ghent Band is, of course, influenced by the Sacred Steel, but not necessarily Sacred Steel as it’s understood in the church. Is that an important distinction?
It really is. I’m doing something… You know, my core sound is definitely influenced from the Sacred Steel, from my dad and my grandad and my great uncle. But I’m doing something slightly different by playing a glass slide with a standard guitar with the strings just raised up to play slide– which is something that wasn’t done in the church and the Sacred Steel platform. It’s definitely a huge difference but yet you get similar sounds.
What brought in the glass slide?
I was out on the road. Believe it or not, when I first started flying to different shows, I was a little bit intimidated with security at the airport.
Ahhh… that makes so much sense!
Yeah (laughs)! And there was always this question of “What’s that?” I was using a steel bar at the time and… You know, other folks might not have had the trouble, but I just kinda got tired of… the question. And on top of that, I was with the Col. Bruce Hampton. We were playing somewhere in Minnesota and Derek Trucks came in and he sat in with us for the remainder of the last song. At the time I had the steel bar in my hand, and he didn’t have his glass slide on him. So I went to my pouch– and I always just kept one on me just for the heck of it. He picked it up and started playing with it. At that point, I was just like, “I kinda like that sound a little bit.” And then I started doing the same thing. It was an organic thing along with just the whole security check, TSA thing– and to me, it just started sounding better. And I wanted it to be different too. So that’s kind of how it came about.
You bring up Derek Trucks, you bring up the Colonel, and I wasn’t sure how I was necessarily going to ask this question. You were out with Col. Bruce Hampton doing that thing– so I can only imagine the knowledge and terror that you must’ve absorbed from that experience.
And then you had the opportunity to play with so many different people. You’ve played with the Allman Brothers Band, you’ve been out with the Tedeschi Trucks Band… When you’re out or you have the special guest appearances with these other fantastic musicians? Do you have the opportunity to learn and share things?
To be quite honest, I’ve never actually been out, even with Tedeschi Trucks– you know, I had the privilege of just sittin’ in with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon Theater years ago when they were still doing that run. And that was my first time and really only time outside of Derek sittin’ in with the Col. Bruce. Any other time I really hadn’t played with him, but it’s kinda like one of those things where, even with other musicians, you talk gear in a certain way, but it’s nothing that you dive in deep. At least I haven’t. I’m more so just tryin’ to absorb the moment and enjoy it and without getting into the “Hey man, how you doing?” type of thing, you know? I would say I shy away from that pretty often. Maybe in the future, I’ll really get down to logistical gear talk and just learning.
You do a lot of shows, you do a lot of festivals. Who’s name are you happy to see on the bill next to yours?
Wow, that’s actually a great question. I can’t even say, you know? I’m happy, honestly, to see musicians out playing. I can’t even say there’s a favorite, but I’m excited to see live music– and there’s so many great players out here, it’s hard to choose from. Of course, any legends, whether it’s Buddy Guy or Taj Mahal…
And you’re pals with Tinsley Ellis as well, another great guitar player.
Ahhh, yes! Well, of course, Tinsley. I believe we did a show with Tinsley in Macon some years back and that was fantastic. Tinley’s a great, great, great guitar player and singer. He has a great thing going on. So like I said, there’s so many different folks out there. I don’t want to put one above the other. I’m just, again, happy and excited to see live music and folks out here playing it and really still getting it. Especially in a digital world.