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Jonny Lang and the ‘right thing’

Guitar guru seeks balance between blues, pop, and R&B

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JONNY LANG was going to be the next Stevie Ray Vaughan.

At least that’s what many people expected when he blasted onto the national with his major label debut album, Lie To Me, in 1997. Just 16 at the time, the multi-talented guitarist/singer looked like an artist who could well revitalize the blues genre and bring that music to the mainstream rock audience.

But as Lang, now 35, has moved forward with his career, it’s become clear he was never going to be simply a blues or blues-rock artist.

PHOTO BY PIPER FERGUSON
  • Photo by Piper Ferguson

His current album, Fight For Your Soul, makes this abundantly clear. There aren’t many hints of blues, and the songs aren’t even that centered around Lang’s guitar playing. Instead, its songs span pop, rock, Motown and contemporary R&B.

Lang knows he may have disappointed fans of his blues-oriented early music. And he appreciates their feelings.

“I certainly know, because I look at it from my point of view, the artists that I love, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and different folks, when I think of the stuff that I love of theirs, you know, there’s a little bit of a desire to see, this knee-jerk reaction to want to see them reproduce that stuff that I love,” he said. “So I totally get it.”

“If I was somebody who liked my first two records and I was like this is why I like this person is because of these records, I might not like me anymore, either, Lang said. “ I totally understand from a listener’s standpoint why you want that. But I just can’t (do that).”

The reality is Lang couldn’t have stuck to the blues and been honest—not to mention satisfied—with his music.

“I guess who I am musically keeps changing because it’s like if I go into something and go ‘OK, there are people who want more guitar solos, so let’s do more guitar solos and write the songs around that,’ it will just fail,” he said.

“I just can’t do that. And what I mean by fail, I just won’t like it. I won’t be happy. So I just never really know what the album is going to turn out like because I don’t know what I like. I don’t really know what’s going to make me happy before I do it, I guess,” he says.

“Whatever comes out at that moment is the right thing. And I’ve been really fortunate to not have, over the years, too much pressure on me creatively from labels and other folks. So I’ve been able to pretty much do that unhindered.”

Early on, there would have been plenty of reason for a record company to push Lang to stick to his blues-rock beginnings. The native of Fargo, North Dakota, first made waves when, at age 13, he started fronting a band, Jonny Lang and the Big Bang, in his newly adapted home base of Minneapolis.

His independently released 1995 debut album, Smokin’, led to a deal with A&M Records. And when Lie To Me was released, it took off commercially.  It went platinum, and in 1998 Lang returned with another blues-rooted effort, Wander this World, which earned him his first Grammy nomination.

But after releasing those albums in quick succession, Lang went five years before releasing his third album, Long Time Coming, in 2003. By then, he was a changed man on several levels.

Musically, Long Time Coming hinted that there was much more to Lang than the blues. That sound was still present, but several songs, including “Second Guessing” and “I Am,” showed that Lang had a talent for soul, Motown, funk and even pop.

Perhaps the biggest changes had occurred on a personal level for Lang. During the whirlwind of his first two albums, he had gotten into drinking and drugs and was leading a life of rock and roll excess.

But Lang got control over his indulgences and turned his life around during the five-year gap that preceded the release of Long Time Coming. In 2001, he married actress Haylie Johnson. That period also saw him kick drinking and drugs and discover Christianity.

Lang’s newfound spirituality was evident in the lyrics of several songs on Long Time Coming, particularly “Save Yourself” and “To Love Again.”

Lang has been on a steady forward path ever since. He and Haylie had a baby boy in June, giving them five children.

“That’s the event of the year for me,” said Lang, who, had to reschedule a few shows in the spring when the new baby took 43 weeks to arrive.

Lang expects that five children will be enough for him and for Haylie.

“She’s reached her limit, I think,” he said light-heartedly.

As for his music, Lang has continued to broaden his stylistic horizons. His 2006 album, Turn Around, added some gospel to its mix of rock and soul—and won a Grammy for best gospel album in the process.

Then with 2013’s Fight For Your Soul, (his first album for Concord Records), he made a strong album that cast his widest stylistic net yet. There’s the funky rocking stomp of “Blew Up (The House),” the melodic and rocking R&B of “We Are The Same,” the percolating soul/R&B of “What You’re Looking For,” the sweet Motown-ish sound of “River” and delicate pop balladry on “All of a Sudden.”

It looks like fans won’t have to wait five or seven years for Lang’s next album. He is working on studio album number six and has a good start on the project.

“I’ve been writing a lot and recording some, just throwing stuff out to see if anything sticks,” Lang said. “So it’s in the beginning stages. But yeah, we’ve started working on it.”

Lang has a sense of where the music may be heading.

“It’s starting to take shape,” he said. “I never really have gone into making a record trying to get it to match up to a certain preconception. But with this one I did have in mind that, if anything, I’d maybe like it to be, I don’t know, a little bit more just guitar centered than the last couple of records, and that might not mean more guitar solos, but maybe more based on riffs, more guitar riff-oriented. So we’ll see what happens with that. But it should be fun.”

For now, there are shows to play. He has put a few new wrinkles into his set for his concerts.

“We worked up, I think, five or so different songs from kind of what we were doing last season,” Lang said. “It’s still a mix of old and new stuff, but just a few different songs.”

Lang is continuing to tour with most of the core group of musicians who played on Fight For My Soul—keyboardist Dwan Hill, rhythm guitarist Akil Thompson and drummer Barry Alexander.

“Our bass player, Jimmie (Anton), he wanted to stay home, so we’ve had a couple of different bass players out,” Lang said.

The group, Lang said, is working well on several levels.

“They’re pretty much the best, I don’t know about the best – you can’t say who’s better – but just for everything, just being on the road, the down time, the social thing on the road and the music part of it, it just works so well with this group of people,” he said. “It’s really a pleasure.”

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