SO WHAT'S BETTER than hearing the announcement of the performers at the 2015 Savannah Music Festival? Hearing that announcement and enjoying the music of one of the brightest young stars in the blues/soul world today.
Ft. Pierce, Fla., native A.J. Ghent is the descendant of two titans in the world of lap steel/sacred steel guitar: grandfather Henry Nelson and father Aubrey Ghent, though the latter two lost touch early in A.J.’s life.
After making his name in Col. Bruce Hampton’s band, today Ghent tours as an established prodigy in his own right, playing a unique eight-string guitar which allows him the full tonal range of the classic steel guitar, except strapped on his shoulders so he can move around.
His playing is jaw-droppingly brilliant, equal parts Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman. He performs Wed., Nov. 5 at the Morris Center in a Savannah Music Festival event that’s free and open to the public.
(Oh, and we’ll let you in on a little secret, just between us: A.J. will also play at the actual Savannah Music Festival next spring.)
1. You follow in the steel guitar tradition of your dad, but you’ve made it clear you didn’t really have a lot of interaction with him growing up. So where did you actually learn to play like this?
A.J. Ghent: It was about listening to various kinds of music. About falling down and getting back up. And sounding horrible to others' ears, as my mom often said (laughs).
It was definitely something I sort of inherited from my dad, though not necessarily a situation where he taught a tradition.
Like some people say: If it’s in you, you can do it. If it ain’t, it ain’t.
2. You seem to be in a sort of in-between phase. You’re on the bar circuit, but you’ve also got some great opening gigs. Plus the Savannah Music Festival dates.
A.J. Ghent: Yeah, we're in between. But honestly I'm happy to play anywhere someone would have me. I'm not one necessarily to have to be on the big stage to be happy.
3. Other than the Music Festival, what's the next big project on your radar?
A.J. Ghent: We just wrapped a meeting with on a new recording project. We're actually mixing it right now. That's the biggest thing on the radar right now. We've been waiting a long time on this, saying we're going to come out with an album. It's really finally coming this time!
We’re really excited. It’s live, it’s raw, it’s been such a joy going in and creating. It’s in front of an audience and everything. It’s a recording and DVD package deal.
4. I’m happy you often refer to your music as soul. I guess you’d agree with me if I said the Motown/Stax soul era of the ‘60s was one of the high points not only of American culture, but in human culture?
A.J. Ghent: Definitely! Without a doubt. It's so sincere, it really speaks to the heart. Look at what they were working with—not a lot of magic software, not a lot of antics. It was straight to the bone.
They poured it out in their music and you could feel it. That’s what keeps that music alive—the feeling that’s kind of hard to get rid of.
We do it too. We get on the stage and play and sing from experience. Whether we’re having a hard day or a hard week, we give it all out on the stage.
5. So what does a ‘sacred steel’ guitar player like you think of the whole idea that some music isn’t meant to be played in bars and sinful places like that? Is that issue even a thing now in 2014?
A.J. Ghent: It's to each his own. This is definitely not sacred steel, but there's an influence because of my family. It was birthed in the church. Music is music. Pouring out your heart and your experience.
Now if you’re preaching the gospel in the clubs that might be different (laughs). But we’re definitely not doing that! You might hear a few familiar licks here and there.
Some people confuse our energy with the energy of the church. But a lot of it is just singing about the trials and everything you may go through in life. Our goal is to reach everybody whether they’re in or out of the church.