Blues phenom Jonny Lang was a day short of sixteen years old when he released his major label debut Lie To Me in 1997. He may not have been old enough to drive, but he had the voice and soulful guitar stylings of a truck driver on the eve of retirement.
His videos played on MTV, he opened for the Rolling Stones and within a couple of years, acquired an appetite for drugs and alcohol that matched his weathered sound. It looked like Lang was going to become a cliche.
Born in Fargo, North Dakota, Lang didn't learn how to play guitar until he was 12 -- but he learned quick. The towheaded slinger rode the crest of the new blues movement in the 1990s, which peaked with the ill-advised feature film sequel Blues Brothers 2000, in which Lang played a guitar-toting custodian alongside soul legends Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd. As for his issues with substance abuse? A divine epiphany struck him following the death of his girlfriend's father, and he turned his life around.
He's now 31, his girlfriend is now his wife, and they live together in the Valley with their four children. Speaking at sound check before a show in Germany, Lang speaks of his faith in personal terms. It keeps him grounded, he says, but he's not preachy. And, with his celebrity apex half a lifetime away, Lang is humble, perhaps more than he needs to be.
"I think having kids just has a way of cutting through all the baloney and helps you get down to who you are and what matters in life in general," he says. "A lot of the other stuff falls away just cause you don't have enough energy to keep it going. I think I just stopped caring as much if people were going to be upset if I changed."
His new work is called Fight For My Soul; his last one, 2006's Turn Around topped the Billboard Christian album charts and nabbed the Grammy for Best Gospel Record. Although it was not intended as an expressly Christian album, those messages caught on.
"I think everybody thought that record was what they wanted it to be. All the folks that had heard our music before had thought this is just a little different blues record. It got recognized in the gospel category for some reason at the Grammys which was cool. I was flattered but I never intended for that to happen. But I will take a Grammy any way they'll give it."
Fight For My Soul is a return to the radio-friendly blues/soul sound that first got him attention, but with more focus on his voice than his searing guitar. "The only thing that I tried to do was be really honest in the songs that were coming out of me. I tried to really not be afraid to do that. Even if it's going to be a curveball for someone."
Although he is no longer a blues poster boy, he never stopped working the concert circuit, playing over 100 gigs a year in Europe and the United States. Lang has finally paid the dues so many guitarists grumbled about him lacking 15 years ago.
"There are times when it gets tough, balancing and dealing with being a dad and a husband and doing this for a living. Sometimes it feels like staying at home and figuring things out along those lines would be better. My wife is like 'This is what you do.' She's encouraged me to keep doing this. I still really love it. I love the opportunity that it gives myself and other people out here to affect people's lives in a positive way. That's kind of the key focus for me. If that wasn't happening, if it was just a party music vibe, I don't think I would do it. That chance to be that for somebody is an awesome thing."
Jonny Lang performs at the Saban Theatre this Saturday, October 26th.