AJ Ghent Band carries on family tradition

The AJ Ghent Band.

7 p.m. Aug. 1. $12; $10 in advance. Smith's Olde Bar, 1578 Piedmont Ave., Atlanta. www.smithsoldebar.com.

There were only five people in the bar the night everything changed for the AJ Ghent Band.

It was only their sixth gig, and – dressed to impress in short black dresses and three-piece suits – they were determined to win over the lackluster group at Dixie’s Tavern in Marietta with their bluesy, blustery funk rock with its nod to James Brown soul and Prince swagger.

A few songs into their set, a bearded man walked into the bar. Frontman AJ Ghent didn’t recognize him, but he had a feeling he might be worth meeting.

“Sometimes, you can tell by a person’s walk that they’re somebody,” says AJ. That somebody turned out to be country music juggernaut and Cumming native Zac Brown, who, later that night, invited AJ on his tour bus for a writing session. The next day he asked the group to come to Nashville, and the day after that, they had a record deal with Brown’s Southern Ground Artists label.

It was a huge step for Ghent and his band, one that would take them from performing for handfuls of people in suburban Atlanta bars to tens of thousands as openers for the Zac Brown Band.

The exposure AJ’s friendship with Brown provided the group — including AJ’s wife MarLa and his sister Tiffany Ghent Belle, both singers; drummer Will Groth; bassist Seth Watters; and rhythm guitarist/saxophone player Gary Paulo – is impossible to deny. But long before Brown came around, AJ knew music was his destiny, and that he’d make a living at it, even if it meant freelancing for other musicians – including the Allman Brothers Band and Col. Bruce Hampton – before he made it big on his own.

AJ first picked up a lap steel guitar as a kid in Fort Pierce, Fla., compelled in part by his pedigree — his father, Aubrey Ghent Sr., his great uncle and his grandfather are all considered masters of Sacred Steel, an African-American style of gospel music developed in Pentecostal churches in the 1930s.

“I’ve always had music in me, I’ve always wanted to do something musical,” he says. “It was a way of showing ownership, a way to belong.”

AJ attended a performing arts school in Florida, where he also picked up the saxophone, steel drums and dabbled in dance, but it was the guitar that stayed with him.

He put his own mark on the instrument, designing an eight-string steel guitar that he can wear like an electric guitar and developing a unique stand-up lap steel playing style. Tired of backing up other musicians, he began writing songs and pulled the band together in 2012.

“I knew if I was going to do it, I needed to do it now,” AJ says.

Prepared for things to move slowly, there were in it for the long haul. Still holding on to their day jobs, they playing gigs at night.

Fast forward two years. The band is working on their first record and snagging headlining spots at festivals and shows in Canada and the U.S., including an Aug. 1 date at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta. They’re confident enough in their future that MarLa left her job at Verizon and AJ has quit freelancing.

It’s the stuff that dreams are made of, says MarLa. The weight of big career moments — playing to 65,000 people while opening for Zac Brown Band at the Hollywood Bowl, for instance — doesn’t usually hit until the next day.

“You go to sleep, and when you wake up, you think, ‘Was I dreaming? Did that really happen?’” MarLa says.

Playing for thousands is thrilling, Tiffany says, but it’s not about the size of the audience, it’s about connecting with whomever happens to be in the crowd that night — “whether it’s 15 people in the audience or 500 people.

“You do want the Grammys and the respect from your peers,” says Tiffany, “but the main focus is, why are you doing what you’re doing? We want to be the change we want to see through music..”

For AJ, that means carrying on the musical legacy started by his grandfather and father.

“They never really had the opportunity to showcase it to the world,” AJ says. “I think it’s my responsibility at this point to make sure the world hears. That’s the most important thing to me, is being able to spread this unique style to everybody so at least those who aren’t still here with us can receive the credit due.”