AJ Ghent had no idea who the bearded white dude in the beanie hat was, even when the dude walked up and introduced himself.
“I didn’t have a clue who Zac Brown was,” says Ghent, whose eponymous band was dressed in its typical black and white formal attire, rolling into a midnight set of originals on a Thursday last summer when the Grammy-winning Brown entered the mostly-empty Dixie Tavern.
After the gig, Ghent and Brown hung out all night, talking plans. They didn’t leave the tavern until seven the next morning. “We clicked right away,” says Ghent. Since then, the AJ Ghent Band has opened for the Zac Brown Band across the country, introducing audiences to the evolution of an African-American musical gospel style, “sacred steel,” which was basically invented by Ghent’s great uncle, Willie Eason, grandfather, Henry Nelson, and father, Aubrey Ghent Sr.
“They’re like the kings of sacred steel, but I didn’t want be defined by what they’d done, or be stuck inside the box of a church environment,” says Ghent, 27, who moved to Atlanta from Fort Pierce, Fla., in early 2012, developing his chops and a regional following while playing with bandleader Col. Bruce Hampton, the influential Socratic chameleon of southern jam rock.
Now, when he isn’t conjuring James Brown on vocals, Ghent makes the custom 8-string lap steel guitar hanging from his neck sound like a spectral woman singing praise to heaven, often harmonizing with the vocals of his front-line band mates, wife MarLa Ghent and sister Tiffany Ghent Belle.
Will Groth (drums), Seth Watters (bass), and Gary Paulo (rhythm guitar/sax) bring rhythmic funk to the band’s sweaty, bluesy rock, and they’re all at work on the group’s debut album for Brown’s Southern Ground Artists label.
“I’d like to create the energy of a live experience with a studio album,” says Ghent, for whom the live experience has changed. “I knew small clubs and pizza joints. Then we played the Georgia Dome with Zac, and it was like adjusting your ears to the sound of a million people screaming.”