When he initially embarked on his journey almost two decades ago, he may not have been looking to change the rules of the way that the blues should be played.
But change those rules is just what he did.
First, he proved that you don’t have to be old (he was 14 when he recorded his first album) or from Chicago or Mississippi (he was born and raised in Fargo, North Dakota) to play the blues.
If that wasn’t enough, now Jonny Lang has proven that it’s possible for a bluesman to have crossover appeal – appeal with faithful devotees of Christian music.
In its first week of release, Fight For My Soul (Concord), the 33-year-old’s latest studio album, hit number one on the Billboard Blues Album chart; number two on the Billboard Christian Album chart; and number 50 on the Billboard Hot 200. It was also named BBC Radio 2’s Album of the Week immediately after it was released. A harbinger of things to come took place back in 2006 when his then-current studio album – Turn Around (A&M Records) – made it all the way to number one on the Christian Album charts.
“That was like the biggest shock of my life, to be recognized in that genre. I mean, Turn Around was definitely a more spiritual record (than some of his prior works), but I didn’t really make it with the intention of having it marketed as a ‘Christian’ record,” Lang said. “We just released it and it found its way over there. I mean, I’m happy just to have my music played anywhere that people want to hear it. It’s great.”
Perhaps the most special aspect of Fight For My Soul’s popularity on the Christian charts is that the album was not marketed to that genre, nor were there any singles pulled off it specifically for Christian radio. The whole process was organic and natural.
That’s a remarkable string of success for any roots-music artist to achieve, but when you consider that Turn Around also came away with a Grammy Award, what you have is a feat that’s really noteworthy.
“To be honest, I struggled with what kind of importance that I should place on it (the Grammy Award). I mean, I felt honored, of course. It’s obviously about the most prestigious award that you can get for music in our society. So it’s a great honor,” Lang said. “It’s something I’m really proud of, but the thing that surprised me was the category it got nominated in, which was gospel. I’m super-happy about that, but surprised. When I first started playing music, I never thought I’d win a Grammy to start with, but especially a Grammy in the gospel category.”
Lang’s conversion to Christianity back at the dawn of the new millennium has done more than just touch his personal life. It’s also had a profound influence on the way that he goes about creating music these days. His songs are still filled with the same kind of fiery passion and performance that brought him to the attention of audiences worldwide with Lie To Me (A&M Records), his major-label debut back when he was a precocious 16 years old. But added to the mix is a depth and sense of personal well-being that was absent from some of his earlier albums … as Lang himself categorized it, something ‘more spiritual.’
“I would say that my last three records have been pretty different from their predecessors – not too incredibly different, like a complete change of genres – but they’re still different. It’s always interesting to gauge the audience’s response when you come out with new material,” he said. “There’s always this kind of interim period where not everybody knows the music. But after it’s been out for awhile and people get to know the music and are singing along to the songs, I’m always more happy about it then. It’s that way with every record, really.”
There’s really no substitution for hitting the road and taking your music to the masses and that’s just what Lang and his bandmates have been doing since Fight For My Soul – which was his first new album in seven years – first hit the streets last September.
“We’ve probably toured more for this record than we have for the past two records. We’ve been hitting it pretty hard and it seems like the record is being received pretty well everywhere we go,” he said. “The selling of records is just such a crazy business right now; it’s really a roller-coaster unto itself. The (musical) landscape is just ever-changing.”
Instead of spending useless hours figuring just where his seat on that ‘roller coaster’ is, Lang is content to just focus on creating the kind of music that moves his own personal Muse, and after that, just let the chips fall where they may.
“It’s funny, but when I’m writing stuff it never occurs to me that possibly thousands of people might be hearing it later. It’s just kind of this cathartic thing (song-writing) that I’m doing. And then you play it and record it and all of a sudden, everybody’s hearing it,” he said. “But that whole thing never really hit until I started doing interviews and people would ask me what this song or that song was about. Then I was like, ‘Wow. I haven’t really even thought about how to answer that.’ So the songs are a really personal thing, but they’re also a very public thing, too.”
The bones of Lang’s last trio of long-players no doubt have roots back in the bluesy, rough-and-tumble sounds of his first couple of albums. But thanks to the modern sensibility that the songs are presented in, along with some exceptional production values – records like his new one – along with Turn Around, have managed to escape the trap of being caught in some kind of time vacuum that dates back to the mid-90s. Instead, they sound focused, mature and have a real contemporary feel; call them blues for the modern days.
“It’s just been a natural kind of thing for me; the direction that I’ve went in. It’s not something that I’ve ever tried to steer or tried to control. I just write songs and then we go play those songs in the studio and that’s how they end up,” he said. “There have been times – not so much these days, but earlier – when I’ve started to realize that, ‘Man, these are not blues songs, or these are not the kind of songs that people are expecting of me.’ So there was a period that I did wrestle with it (the direction his songs were going), but I decided that I would be forcing it to make the songs more traditional blues songs. So this has really been a naturally-occurring thing. But there’s still a good amount of blues influences in my music these days.”
The tone and timbre of Fight For My Soul are not the only separating properties of Lang’s latter-day output as compared with Lie To Me or Wander This World. The manner in which the songs actually came to life has undergone a bit of tweaking, as well.
“The process is still pretty simple, but when it would come time to do a record in the past, it would be like, ‘OK, now it’s time to write.’ And then we would sit down and write a song. Now, it’s like, ‘Let’s not do that. Let’s just wait until the song comes.’ And then we sit down and write and when we have enough of those moments down, then we go make a record, instead of the other way around,” he said. “It’s been positive in a lot of ways, but it’s been negative in a few ways, too, to do it that way. It’s not as precise or as good time-management wise.”
As anyone who has listened to the radio in the past decade or so can attest to, blues and other roots-related music – while occasionally present – is mostly relegated to second class citizen status. However, categories and pigeon-holes are things that Lang doesn’t spend a lot of time or energy dwelling on.
“Well, for me it has been a little bit stifling to be categorized. Because music is so emotion-driven and feeling-driven that your left brain is telling your right brain, ‘Hey, you don’t need to be so categorical and wrestle with me here, I’m trying to help us both.’ And your right brain is going, “No, get in this box.’ So therein lays the whole thing,” Lang said. “It’s easier if you can just let it go and know that it’s something that doesn’t truly exist. It’s become a lot easier for me as a creative person to just try and let all that go and just make music and if folks like it, they like it. When it comes down to it, when someone likes a song and they’re singing along to it, I don’t think they stop and wonder what category the song is in. They’re just singing and enjoying it.”
Regardless of which way his songwriting takes him, the one constant that always figures to remain in place is Lang’s exquisite and thoroughly-dynamic style of guitar playing, highlighted by his beautifully-controlled vibrato. If having a signature series Les Paul named after you isn’t enough to prove your mettle, if you can manage to pop up on Eric Clapton’s radar as a guitar player of note, you have truly achieved something special. Since Lang has made multiple appearances at Clapton’s mammoth Crossroads Guitar Festivals, it’s safe to say that his peers fully acknowledge his skills on a six-string. And at the core of Lang’s well-honed guitar sound lays the sound of the blues.
“I think my guitar playing will always be bluesy and blues-based. I’ve tried to stretch out, but I just can’t,” he laughed. “I’m just kind of a blues guitar player. That will always be a part of me.”
In addition to traveling all over the globe to tirelessly support Fight For My Soul, Lang somehow found time to squeeze another tour of duty on the eighth Experience Hendrix Tour into his daily planner. Alongside longtime Hendrix friend and Band of Gypsys bassist Billy Cox, Lang, along with a who’s-who of jaw-dropping guitarists, including: Buddy Guy, Zakk Wylde, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Dweezil Zappa, Eric Johnson and Ana Popovic – to name a few – criss-crossed the country spreading the gospel of all things Hendrix this past Spring.
“It’s great on a few different fronts. Just getting to know the other musicians is great. At first I thought when all these guitar players get together it’s going to be a big ego-fest, but it really wasn’t that at all,” he said. “I think everybody knows honoring the memory of someone like Jimi Hendrix is bigger than all of us put together. It’s really a humbling thing, all of us getting together and traveling on the same bus – crammed in together, out on the road on this tour. It’s kind of like the old-school way of touring. So the inter-personal part of it is really cool.”
Getting together with a bunch of fellow guitarists, talking shop, trading tips and swapping licks has got to be way-beyond cool, but at the end of the day, the Experience Hendrix Tour is really all about one thing.
“Jimi’s music. Getting to play all those great songs is amazing. And getting asked to be a part of the tour to begin with is just such a great honor,” said Lang. “It’s just been a really positive thing for me.”
Standing on a stage playing your own music to a set of your own fans is certainly not without its challenges. But when you’re standing on stage playing some of the most revered songs ever crafted, by one of the most iconic musicians to ever touch down on the face of the earth, that presents its own set of pitfalls. Especially when you have an audience filled to the brim with people that want to … well … Experience Hendrix.
“I do feel a little bit different when I play songs that someone else has written as opposed to the ones that I’ve written myself. There is a difference there,” Lang said. “In this case, you’re trying to do your best to make these songs adequate and the mental hurdle there is pretty big for me. I mean, it’s Jimi Hendrix. And this is not just any ‘ole gig where you’re playing Jimi Hendrix songs. His family is involved and this is like a sanctioned event. So you do feel a little bit of pressure to pull it off in a decent way. But of course after a while, you settle in and get comfortable and it just becomes fun.”
As impressive as his guitar playing was as a teen-ager, the magnificent roar of young Jonny Lang’s voice was equally headline-grabbing. Sounding nothing like most pre 20-year-olds, Lang’s pipes were a force to be reckoned with and sounded like they had been fed a steady diet of whisky and cigarettes for 60-some years.
“I’d always loved singing when I was growing up and listened to tons of R&B and soul singers and that was the kind of stuff I loved singing to. Around the time I joined the first band I was in, when I really went to sing in front of a live microphone, this other voice just came out,” he said. “I guess I really hadn’t been singing up to that point. It was like the emotion was all there and it was time to really sing for people and something changed and that’s what came out. I don’t know … I guess it was in there and just had to come out.”
Time certainly has a way from getting away from all of us and we get entangled in our day-to-day routines and rarely have the time to stop and look up for even the slightest of seconds. After all, it seems just like yesterday that “Lie To Me” a new single from a hot young bluesman named Jonny Lang was burning up the airwaves. Now, that young hot-shot has turned into a sage and wise veteran of the blues some 20 years later.
“For a long time now, I’ve looked at music differently than I did at first. When I first started out, I looked at it like it was something that was fun for me. Lately, I’ve been looking at it like it’s something that’s more for other people. If there’s a goal in it for me, it’s that my music can be of help – or a blessing – to somebody that’s listening to it,” he said. “We’ve all heard that one song that fixed us, or helped us through a difficult time at some point, and the opportunity to be that for someone else is really amazing when you stop and think about it. That’s something that I’ve been taking a lot more seriously lately. I think what it boils down to is music is like medicine. It can get you through a time of pain, or helps you enjoy a time of happiness. It’s medicinal.”
For more on Jonny Lang visit Jonny’s website at: www.jonnylang.com
Photo by Bob Kieser.