It was 1936 in Philadelphia, and a Hawaiian named Jack was playing something called a lap steel guitar on the radio. It was mercurial and melodic, the sonic equivalent of sunshine across water or the soul rising like rain. Troman Eason heard the steel, found the man, and convinced Jack to teach him the ways of the holy Hawaiian lap steel guitar. Willie Eason was 16 and marveled at the machine his brother brought home. As Troman’s skill with the steel grew, he began to teach Willie. They purchased amplifiers, plugged in at church. The Eason’s belonged to the Pentecostal House of God, Keith Dominion. They began to use the lap steel to lift sermons, singers, and testimonies. Willie Eason used the strings on his steel to mimic the gospel singers, their phrasing and inflection. By 1940, Little Willie & His Talking Guitar had developed a unique style of praise and worship that would replace the traditional organ and become synonymous with the House of God. He toured with Bishop J.R. Lockley’s Gospel Feast Party, made a number of records including at least two with the Soul Stirrers. Willie married Alyce Nelson, settled in Florida. It was there that Alyce’s younger brother, Henry, heard the steel.
The Sacred Steel style certainly started with Willie Eason, but it was his brother-in-law, Henry Nelson who solidified the lap steel guitar as the primary instrument of the Keith Dominion. The steel rhythm over a straight beat, no chord change became a staple of processions and services and was, in fact, a primordial precursor to rock n’ roll. Henry’s son Aubrey Ghent also felt the pull of the steel. He used a No. 16 nail to raise the strings of his Kay Truetone, laid it across his knees, found a steel bar to slide and testify through his tiny amp. Once his commitment was plain, Aubrey’s grandfathers’ made gifts of a Red Supro lap steel and a tweed-covered Fender Deluxe amplifier. Aubrey was a steel guitar virtuoso and full fledged preacher at 20-years-old. He dedicated his life and faith to the House of God, and his ability and music is preserved for posterity in the Smithsonian Institute. Aubrey Ghent’s Sacred Steel has influenced artists like Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Robert Randolph, and of course, his son AJ.
AJ Ghent, like the masters before him, felt the power of the Sacred Steel. It was his birthright, after all, and the records of his forbears instructed him. He felt the spirit in the music, but he also felt the electricity of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince and James Brown. AJ took to the bars and clubs, applied the lap steel to popular music. He was writing songs, experimenting– but he needed more freedom. AJ developed a standing, overhand technique that allowed for greater independence on stage. He could move now, interact with his band and the audience in a dynamic and fresh capacity. In 2012, AJ Ghent moved his family to Atlanta, GA and found a new kind of guru in Colonel Bruce Hampton.
Col. Bruce and Pharoah’s Kitchen encouraged AJ to push the boundaries of what the steel could do. From there, the AJ Ghent Band was invited to play with the Allman Brothers Band, the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, Zac Brown, Luther Dickinson… New audiences, songwriting, and studio work– AJ was amassing pieces of a large musical puzzle. A corner of funk here, a center piece of gospel there, rock n’ roll edges… AJ Ghent heard how it all fit together. He calls it Neo Blues, and it’s the next innovation in the litany of the Sacred Steel. Those who find it, master it– they all leave a bit of themselves in the art that endures. It’s what Troman Eason heard and shared with his brother, Willie. It’s the thing that Henry Nelson elevated and Aubrey Ghent perpetuated. In that spirit, AJ Ghent’s Neo Blues Project is more than an album– it’s a legacy.