Those who subscribe to the notion that only age and a lifetime of hardships can produce a blues musician have probably never heard Jonny Lang play guitar. Just ask legendary bluesman Buddy Guy, who toured with Lang in the summer of 1998: “That kid has just got what it takes, man,” Guy said to Sean McDevitt of Guitar magazine. “Someone told me once that blues is like whiskey. They keep whiskey in the barrel for so many years, and then they talk about how well it’s aged. But I don’t think that goes for him. I think this young man has just stepped in there sayin’, I‘m gonna prove you all wrong.’ I think he’s like a watermelon, man. He’s ripe.” Blues godfather B.B. King felt the same way, according to A&M Records, adding,“When I was young, I didn’t play like I do today. So these kids are starting at the height that I’ve reached. Think what they might do over time.”
The teenage Lang intends to dispel beliefs that he is just another child novelty and to gain an audience beyond the typical curiosity seekers. As he told Ray Rogers of Interview, “If you do anything that’s unusual when you’re young, people love to accentuate the novelty, and the press loves to exploit it. But I’ve always told myself I’m going to be rated as a musician, not by how old I am. I said, ‘I’m not going to be good for my age; I want to be good period.’” Rogers added that in addition to his skill at playing blues guitar in a way that makes the music sing through with a voice of experience,“Lang also has the grace of someone untainted by the world, a free spirit whose music and very person refuse to be bound by class, race, age, or any other expectation.”
In 1997, after the release of Lang’s major-label debut Lie to Me, Guitar magazine readers voted the 16-year-old “Best New Guitarist” in the publication’s annual readers poll, and the editors of Newsweek placed Lang’s name on their prestigious Century Club list, a roster of 100 Americans expected to influence society and culture in the next millennium. Rock guitarist Jeff Beck realized Lang’s talent as well and asked the young musician to appear with him at a ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Two years later, Lang shook the blues scene again, releasing Wander This World, an album that incorporated elements of soul, rhythm and blues, funk, and hard rock in addition to blues standards and originals.
Jonny Lang was born and raised outside Fargo, North Dakota. The third child and only boy in a family of four children, Lang enjoyed a pleasant upbringing. His father played drums, and his mother revered roots music and the soul of the Motown era, so the Lang household was always filled with inspirational grooves. Growing up, Lang had fond memories of singing Motown tunes with
Born January 29, 1981, near Fargo, ND; son of a drummer; three sisters.
Took up saxophone at age 11; started to learn blues guitar at age 13; began performing in clubs around Fargo; recorded the independent release Smokin’, relocated to Minneapolis, MN, c. 1996; released major-label debut for A&M Records with producer David Z entitled Lie to Me, 1997; toured with Aerosmith, Rolling Stones, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and landed cameo role in the film Blues Brothers 2000; released Wander This World, 1998.
Awards: “Best New Guitarist,” Guitar magazine’s annual reader’s poll, 1997.
Addresses: Home —Minneapolis, MN. Record company —A&M Records, 1416 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood, CA 90028, (213) 856-2695, fax (213) 856-2645.
his three sisters and mother. “It was pretty easy for me to identify with blues music after that because blues and soul are pretty close in a lot of ways. I could just hear it and mentally decipher it,” Lang told Rogers. Despite his exposure to soul at home, Lang never felt out of sorts with the music his peers listened to. As he told Rogers,“I was into Nirvana like crazy, and Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam, too. But for me, it was more real to play roots music.”
During his time in school, Lang’s father wanted his tall, lanky son to play basketball in additionto learning music. But Lang only lasted two games, admitting to Rogers,“I liked it all right, but I’d have rather sat at home and practiced saxophone.” Starting out with saxophone at the age of eleven, Lang (at the time a huge fan of saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr.) concentrated on that instrument for a year before turning his attention to blues guitar. Guitarist Ted Larsen, a friend of Lang’s father and former member of Lang’s band, obliged to teach the anxious youngster how to play guitar if Lang agreed to learn only by playing the blues. Thus,“I was a blues snob at 13 years old…. My teacherfed me records and I started learning early stuff,” Lang conceded to Guitfarmagazine’s Bob Gulla. Practicing as many as six hours every day, Lang delved deep into the blues tradition developed by some of the most celebrated guitarists in blues history. “The blues was such a great place for me to start,” noted Lang, according to his record company,“with Robert Johnson, Albert Collins, B.B. King, Freddie King and all those guys. It’s where it all started which makes it a really good well that you can always draw from.”
Before long, Lang progressed enough to begin paying his dues in clubs in North Dakota with an outfit called Jonny Lang and The Big Bang. Soon thereafter, club goers spread the word about the young teenager with a remarkable talent, and Lang and his band recorded an independent-label album entitled Smokin’, a release that sold an estimated 25, 000 copies. However, Lang felt that he had outgrown the confines of North Dakota and relocated to Minneapolis, a move he defined as “a very humbling musical experience.” Full of ego as a consequence of his success in his native state, Lang immediately realized he still needed practice. “It didn’t take long to see that there were a whole lot of bands that kicked our asses,” he admitted to Gulla.
Motivated by the competition, Lang jumped into the Minneapolis club circuit with his band. One group that greatly inspired him to improve his technique was Doctor Mambo’s Combo, a group that would frequently invite Lang on stage with them during their sets and force the teenage guitarist to improvise with them. He also made connections in Minneapolis with a number of former Prince cohorts, namely producer David Z, who offered to help Lang record a demo tape. Based on the demo with David Z, Lang received a contract offer from A&M Records.
Following his signing, Lang recorded his first major-label album, the platinum-selling Lie to Me, also produced, engineered, and mixed by David Z. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard New Artist chart, and critics marveled at the maturity and poise that Lang displayed considering his young age. Released on January 28, 1997 (one day before Lang’s 16th birthday), Lie to Me spawned the record’s title track hit. Shortly thereafter, Lang’s zealous technique, aided by his boyish, movie star good looks, led him to land an hour-long television special with Disney, in addition to a cameo role in the film Blues Brothers 2000 playing with rhythm and blues legend Steve Cropper. In tour dates that followed, Lang, not yet 17 years of age, performed with some of the most celebrated artists in both the blues and rock and roll, including Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, Blues Traveler, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and others. Lang also toured on his own, headlining concerts around the world.
Playing with some of the greatest blues legends in history, though, came to represent some of Lang’s most memorable experiences. “Playing with B.B. has probably been the biggest thrill of my life,” Lang admitted to Gulla. “Talk about humbling. I’m sitting next to God here. I justwanted to sit next to him and listen, not play at all. But he let me play, so I just… actually, I didn’t know what I was doing. You don’t wanna go ’diddly diddly diddly dee, ‘and play all these notes,’ cause B.B. will shut your ass up with one little ’biiinnggg, ’ and everybody will go wild. You can’t be more tasteful than B.B. It’s impossible.”
Despite his admiration for the forbearers of blues, Lang also considered taking alternate musical directions, a contemplation resulting largely from his move to Minneapolis, a city where he could not ignore the music being created in other areas of music all around him. He admitted that when he first started playing blues, he was strictly a purist and refused to try anything else. Thus, after opening his eyes to other styles and using blues as a solid foundation, Lang released his follow-up album, Wander This World, in the fall of 1998. While Wander This Word continued down the path of traditional blues, the album also incorporated a variety of unexpected musical destinations such as soul, rhythm and blues, and funk. For example, on the textured, mid-tempo title-track (written by band members Paul Diethelm and Bruce McCabe), Lang’s seemingly aged vocal passion and finger picked guitar takes root amid Diethelm’s accompanying Dobro. And the song “I Am,” written by David Z (who produced the album as well) and Prince, featured a soulful funk sound, a thumping bass line, and a jazz saxophone.
“Playing funk on guitar is a different mind-set,” Lang concluded to Gulla. “Junior Wells’ stuff, or Buddy Guy’s stuff like ’Good Morning Little School Girl’ is so funky, you just have to listen to it. Funk is my favorite thing to play. I love funk more than anything. I could play rhythm guitar all day and be happy.” One of Lang’s friends from Blues Brothers 2000, Cropper, who Lang felt was one of the best funk guitarists, also came on board for the project. “Steve is so inspiring. He added the soul vibe to the whole album, so it’s like listening to a Stax recording.” Cropper’s subtle technique sounded especially evident on the gospel-tinged “Leaving to Stay.”
Lang’s own heartfelt ballad “Breakin’ Me” and the acoustic lament “The Levee” also forced critics to realize that the young star’s career was only just beginning. He silenced those who labeled him as a fleeting child prodigy, demonstrating that not only could he draw from the rich blues tradition, but he could also learn to spread his creative wings in new directions with a sense of self-awareness rare in adults, let alone teenagers. The distinguished blues guitarist Luther Allison said of Lang before his death in 1997, as quoted by A&M Records,“Jonny Lang has the power to move the music into the next millennium by reaching the ears of a new generation. The great musicians have the power to break all of the ‘isms’—race, age, sex, et cetera. Jonny Lang is one of those musicians.”
Lie to Me, A&M, 1997.
Wander This World, A&M, 1998.
Swenson, John, editor, Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1999.
Billboard, September 19, 1998, p. 12.
Blues Today: A Rolling Stone Special, 1998, pp. 2-3.
Guitar, November 1998, pp. 43-46, 108-113.
Guitar World, November 1998, pp. 40-42.
Interview, February 1999, pp. 114-118.
Request, May 1999, pp. 25-29.
Additional information provided courtesy of A&M Records, Inc., Press Department.
Born: Jonathon Langseth; Fargo, North Dakota, 29 January 1981
Genre: Blues, Rock
Best-selling album since 1990: Lie to Me (1996)
Hit songs since 1990: "Lie to Me"
Jonny Lang's sudden emergence onto the blues scene in 1995 was a deviation from the seasoned path customarily blazed by other well-known blues artists. Hailed as a guitar prodigy, Lang was already touring with major acts such as B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith by age sixteen, earning raves for his tasteful guitar skills and spirited vocal work. Lang's age is not the only anomaly: His childhood was spent in a North Dakota farm town, Casselton, which rests on the fertile soil of the Red River Valley—not exactly a renowned cornerstone of the blues. Further breaking the mold are his throaty vocals that bring to mind the burden of a seventy-five-year-old man, not the muse of a skinny Scandinavian kid with a teen idol's face. However, as soon as his second album, Lie to Me (1996), gained national release, Lang's standing in the blues community rose from novelty performer to an accepted and serious artist. Lie to Me has sold over 1 million copies.
Lang began playing the guitar at the age of thirteen after his father took him to a concert of local blues bands in Fargo, North Dakota. Inspired by one of the guitarists, Ted Larsen of the group Bad Medicine, Lang dropped an earlier notion to become a saxophonist and sought the guitarist out for private lessons. Soon thereafter he was fronting Bad Medicine, renamed Jonny Lang and the Big Bang, as lead guitarist/singer. Lang's band moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul and recorded an independently released album titled Smokin' (1995), which sold over 25,000 copies on first release—a major success for an independent label. Smokin' caught the attention of major record companies and after a bidding war A&M Records promptly signed him. Lie to Me was released a day before Lang's sixteenth birthday.
After receiving highly favorable reviews for Lie to Me, Lang was selected Best New Guitarist in Guitar Magazine 's readers poll. He appeared with guitar legend Jeff Beck at the 1997 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and can be seen performing the song "6345789" with Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd in the film Blues Brothers 2000 (1998). In 1998 Lang released his third album, Wander This World, and again received praise from critics. Wander This World features R&B and rock ballad textures in lieu of the straight blues from his earlier recordings. Heavily influenced by the Motown records that he sang along with as a child, Lang has indicated that his future music ventures might incorporate even more R&B and funk.
Distinguished by an effusive "no holds barred" style of performing, Lang growls out his vocals, contorts his face, and twists his body, seemingly "wringing out" the blues when he plays. The sense of incongruity created by the difference between his grown-up sound and his adolescent look continues to fascinate an audience that ranges from preteen idol worshipers to veteran fans of classic blues. Lang's commitment to the blues has turned skeptics into believers and garnered praise from venerable blues artists such as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and the late Luther Allison—all of whom he has shared the stage with at various junctures. In 2002, while other musicians his age were focusing on varieties of fad-driven alternative rock, Lang remained faithful to his blues roots, giving certain assurance that the blues would be carried into future generations.
Smokin' (independent release, 1995); Lie to Me (A&M, 1996); Wander This World (A&M, 1998); Smokin' (re-release, 2002).