The blues guitar wunderkind Jonny Lang was only 15 when he released his solo album Lie To Me in 1997.
It landed in the No. 1 slot on Billboards New Artist chart and the sales sent it soaring into platinum status. His follow-up album, Wander This World, was released two years later and garnered a Grammy Award nod. Expect to hear plenty of songs from those discs when Lang makes his first appearance with his band Friday as part of The Seven Days of Opening Nights arts festival.
During Langs initial bloom of success and stardom in the late 90s, the 17-year-old musician caught a slight touch of the Bieber Fever. Translation: he went a little wild.
People arent normal people when they are at a concert, everything is heightened, the mellow-voiced Lang said during a phone chat from his house in California. In that kind of frenzied atmosphere, your priorities go out the window. And everything is available to you. Everything is right there. … Children are not known for making good decisions and I was still a child. I made some bad decisions.
Lang was doing a lot of underage drinking in clubs, experimenting with cocaine, taking Ecstasy (the drug du jour of the late 90s) and smoking two packs of cigarettes per day, which caused his already-husky voice to sound like Howlin Wolf with a head cold.
I was having fun and partying without plans of stopping until, one day, I felt the presence of God in my life, Lang said.
When he was 18, Lang was standing in the backyard of his then-girlfriends parents home in Burbank, Calif., when, he said, God introduced himself to me one afternoon.
I hadnt hit bottom or anything like that, Lang said. I just knew I had to change.
Thanks to the divine intervention, Lang cleaned up his act and eventually married his girlfriend, Haylie Johnson, an actress who had worked on TV shows such as Kids Incorporated and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. They now have four children: a twin boy and girl who are 6, a 3-year-old daughter and an 8-month-old girl.
When asked why it took seven years to make his latest album, Fight For My Soul, Lang laughed and said, Just having kids. The plan was to make an album sooner, but that didnt happen. Life got in the way.
Young man blues
Lang was little more than a kid growing up in the remote farming community of Casselton, N.D., when his father took him to see the Bad Medicine Blues Band in nearby Fargo, N.D. The 12-year-old Lang was blown away by what he heard.
I remember thinking, Ive got to learn to do this, Lang said.
By they way, Lang said he got a kick out of the twisted Coen brothers movie Fargo (1996), which divided many of the locals around Fargo over its depiction of folks out on The Plains.
Its pretty darn close to what its like in Fargo, well, maybe not the wood-chipper scene, Lang said. I loved it.
After his first musical journey to Fargo, Lang started out playing saxophone but found his true calling when his father bought him a guitar.
When I got a guitar, I got addicted to it, Lang said.
When he was the ripe old age of 13, the Bad Medicine Blues Band invited Lang to become its lead singer. Even though the members of Bad Medicine were much older, Lang said they treated him like a member of the family.
We were like brothers and we still are today, Im glad to say, Lang said.
During a road trip to Chicago, Lang and his band met one of the true blues guitar legends, Buddy Guy.
I met him when I was 15 or 16, Lang said. We played at his club in Chicago. They said that Buddy was going to show up that night and I thought, Oh man, I hope he doesnt come in. I was just so nervous. We started playing and I looked over to the side of the stage and there he was. I dont remember anything after that.
Guy went on to become a mentor and friend to the young guitar slinger.
Hes a very, very, very nice person, Lang said. Even a mellow guy. Hes treated me and all kinds of young musicians so well. Hes all about the younger musicians who are coming along.
The timing could not have been better when Lang sprang on the national scene at the same time other young guitar guns such as Derek Trucks and Kenny Wayne Shepherd were making names for themselves. MTV was still playing music videos instead of reality shows in those days and Langs fresh face was popular with the young female demographic.
At first, Lang used his powerful voice as a weapon, or as he called it screaming in tune.
As he matured and released more albums, such as Long Time Coming (2003) and the aptly named Turn Around (2006), Lang grew into his own voice.
Ive learned to use my voice a little more efficiently and not blow it out, Lang said.
On Fight For My Soul, Lang eased up on the growling and found a more soulful sound to his voice.
There is a bit more actual singing going on, he said and laughed.
Fight For My Soul topped the Billboard Blues Album Chart and even hit No. 2 on the Billboard Christian Album rankings. Who says the blues and church music should never mix?
I had almost no preconceptions for making this one (Fight For My Soul), Lang said. I didnt want to try and manipulate anything and control it. … I just wanted to honor the songs for what they were. Its very natural.