Neo Blues Star AJ Ghent’s Musical Journey

By Nikki Hedrick


AJ Ghent returns to the area Saturday, Oct. 5, for the Destin Seafood festival, performing on the AJ’s Jumbotron Stage at 8:30 PM.


“Anytime you got warm weather, some nice water, and good food, you can’t complain,” he says. “So that’s one of my favorite parts of that side of the world.”


Over the last few years, Ghent has made changes, from dropping the word “band” to finding a label he is comfortable with under the “Neo Blues” genre and focusing more on his family’s history with a specific type of guitar playing.


Ghent is quick to talk about his devotion to music and how it’s intertwined with every aspect of his life. “My one-year-old goes out on the road with me. So even when it comes down to the ‘having a baby’ thing, that’s all included in my touring life and musical journey.”


Ghent is the fourth in his family—following a great uncle, grandfather, and father—to combine the steel guitar and gospel music. Noted as the “sacred steel” style, it has proved to be a great influence on many guitarists.


“A lot of times they, my father and grandfather, many times don’t really get the credit for such a unique sound that they birthed. But I would say to the world and I feel like it’s my duty to keep spreading that message and making an awareness of them.


“My grandfather isn’t alive today. My father still is, but he’s not touring as much. He’s kind of retired from the road—it’s kind of like a generational thing. Just, if I don’t say nothing, if I don’t push it, I don’t know if it would ever be talked about. So I have to. I’ve got to put them out there, all respect to them.


“It’s not like I’m playing anything different,” Ghent says of the “Singing Guitar” moniker he’s recently adopted. “But a few recordings sparked attention on the Internet. And people just kind of started going with the whole guitar-singing thing. And so, before I knew it, I was just going with it.”


That go with the flow view has helped Ghent define his style on his own terms. “(Growing up) I was able to listen to many different types of music. I wasn’t supposed to as far as my grandparents go,” he says. “My mom, she knew she had a very headstrong boy that she birthed, so she kind of allowed me to make decisions understanding and trusting that I will make the right ones at a very early age.


“And so, with that, my musical vocabulary was pretty broad. I listened to, of course, gospel music, R&B music, hip-hop and all kinds of influences—jazz, everything. By the time I started playing professionally, I found myself on stage just kind of playing what I grew up listening to and loving.


“Before I knew it, I found myself in this genre of music,” he adds. “You know how that goes because you have to be labeled as something. So it was the blues market that I was in. I was playing that a lot, and I wanted to give people an understanding of who I am and who I was and where I’ve come from.


“And the best way to do that was to kind of involve my childhood musical vocabulary along with what the people loved within that genre, which was the blues. And the only way I knew I could do that and kind of get away with it in a way or have it come across the right way was to call the music ‘Neo Blues.’”


He credits the success of this concept with fans who listen to music without concerns of genres. Ghent’s Neo Blues Project album debuted at number 7 on Billboard’s Blues chart. “We’re all listening to all kinds of music now. So if you’re an artist or you’re in a band, it’s kind of hard to key in the love of many genres, and then you have to fit into one.”


Through guidance from his family and even Colonel Bruce, Ghent aims to be true to who he is. “And then when you get to a certain age and you notice that you have a strong personality, like many of us do, you realize that I have no choice but to be who I am. Because, whether I like it or not, that’s what’s going to come out.


“I won’t stop being who I am and doing things the way I do them for nothing. It’s kept me alive. It’s kept me happy, and I’m at peace.”


At the end of the day, the focus is the music—and for Ghent, that’s something he never takes for granted. “The concert atmosphere can be a party. And then, sometimes, the atmosphere can be very peaceful, with a healing vibe. Lately, I’ve been doing my best to give that, because there are so many different things going on in the world today. There’s so many different people going through all kinds of trauma. The suicide rate, stress rate, depression rate…all that stuff has gone through the roof.


“And I feel like I don’t want to always numb people, but more so heal. You’ll still get that joyful song and vibe, but you’ll also get this peaceful feeling that says ‘Well, hey, you know what, I’m not going to go home with the same issues I came here with.’ So I’ve been doing my best to try to give that.”


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