Blues Guitarist Lang is a Busy Man

Jonny Lang and Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford during the Experience Hendrix Tour.
Robert Knight

Blues Guitarist Lang is a Busy Man

Written by Chrissy Mauck, June 23, 2010

As a youngster growing up in Fargo, N.D., playing an instrument wasn’t remotely on Jonny Lang’s radar. Instead, the devoted Michael Jackson fan dreamt of becoming a professional singer and performing to the masses. Until he turned 12, that is, when his father took him to see the Bad Medicine Blues Band and guitarist Ted Larsen caught Lang’s eye.

“When I saw him play, I don’t know how to explain, it was this powerful thing I had never experienced before,” says Lang. “I was like, ‘I want to be like that guy.’ I don’t know why, but for whatever reason, it registered with me.”

Lang began taking guitar lessons from Larsen, and as a testament to his inherent musical ability, within months, the Bad Medicine Blues invited the youngster to join the group, even renaming it Kid Jonny Lang & The Big Bang.

A few years later, at age 15, Lang signed with A&M records, releasing his critically acclaimed, multi-platinum solo debut Lie to Me the following year.

Although widely considered a nimble-fingered, blues-guitarist prodigy, Lang humbly insists it wasn’t always so easy.

Photo by Marty Temme.

“Some things did come easily and other things, I almost gave up because I felt like I’d never get past certain points,” he confesses. “I think it really helped that the Bad Medicine Blues invited me to join their band because being able to actually play shows and not just practice in my room really helped things come together much quicker.”

Five solo albums deep and the singer/songwriter/guitarist is still receiving a flurry of lofty invites from other musicians.

Lang spent March 2010 performing with some of the most well-respected guitarists during the Experience Hendrix Tour.

“To be able to hang with all of those great guitar players and try to interpret Jimi’s songs was quite a privilege,” Lang says. “It was flattering to be asked to do that.”

Although he says he could go on and on about all of the cool moments from the experience, Lang feels most fortunate that he was paired with Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford.

“I got to do my set with Brad and I became friends with him, and he’s just such a great guy,” offers Lang. “He has become an inspiration to me as a guitar player, so getting to hang with him and play with him was pretty amazing.”

This weekend, Lang is taking a break from his own summer tour to fly to Chicago for Eric Clapton’s June 26 Crossroads Festival, a day-long musical celebration featuring legendary guitarists and artistic collaborations between Clapton and his guests.

“I don’t take any of those moments for granted,” says Lang, who also participated in Clapton’s festival in 2004. “Being asked to play at something like that is so cool. It’s also really awesome because I’m actually playing with Buddy Guy as a member of his band.”

Lang will have only limited time to rehearse for the Crossroads performance with Guy, but he says that’s no problem.

 ”I’ve known him since I started playing, basically, and we’ve done so many shows together,” says Lang. “I know his songs and stuff and it’s just blues, you know. Any amount of rehearsing would just be undone at the outset of the show anyway because it would all change.”

After winning a Grammy for best gospel album with 2006′s Turn Around, Lang explored his blues roots with his first-ever live album, Live at the Ryman, released in April.

“It’s weird because in the studio, you can go back as many times as you want to get it right, but you sacrifice a lot of the inspiration and flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of thing,” says Lang. “Then with the live thing, you get all of the inspiration but you can’t go back — well, these days a lot of people do go back and fix up things, but you can’t make it perfect like a studio record.”

Hoping to get as close to perfection as possible, Lang recorded several of his 2008 shows, planning to pick the best one for the album. As luck would have it, his show at the Ryman that summer won out.

“I was really glad that it ended up being the Ryman show because of it being such a historic venue,” says Lang. “I love playing there; it’s an incredible venue. We always have a great time there and it’s just a really special place to play.”

Lang is also featured on Cyndi Lauper’s new album, Memphis Blues, which hit stores this week.

“She is an incredibly deep musical artist,” says Lang. “I hadn’t really studied her music before. My memories of her, and I even admitted this to her, were: ‘I’m sorry but all I know was that my big sister was listening to you when I was a little kid.’

“But on this record that she did, she understands the old roots of soul/blues music so well and she knows a lot of the music. She has a huge catalog of music and I think that is what she’s most influenced by. It was really cool to work with her and just to get her perspective, and she’s singing her butt off on the whole thing.”

Lang also raves about the recording process with Lauper during their collaborations on “How Blue Can You Be” and “Crossroads.”

“It was done in Memphis at this old studio and there was no piece of recording gear in there that was under, probably, 40 years old,” he says. “So there were no modern recording techniques used at all. It was just all to tape and you would use one take, and no overdubs was kind of her rule. So she did it the old way. Also, she used all of the guys who used to play on Al Green’s stuff, and they still sound like that. It was one of the neatest recording experiences I’ve ever had, for sure.”

And so who knows? Maybe one day this blues-loving 29-year-old musician will pull a Lauper and explore his Michael Jackson pop-rock side after all.

“I love so many different styles of music and I feel so much a part of music in general, and not solely linked, at least in my heart, to just one or two genres,” Lang says. “In the course of my life I will probably explore a bunch of stuff, but at the same time I want to be in context with what I did last and not make too huge of a leap.”

Most importantly, Lang hopes his music has the deep impact on others that it’s had on his own life.

“Music is one of the few things for me — and I’ve found this to be true for a lot of people — when you are having a hard time relating, it kind of can be a glue that helps things make sense,” he says. “I just feel it can access a place in people that very few things can. A song can be specifically about one subject that the writer intended, but it can be interpreted a thousand different ways by people. It kind of seems that whatever you need at that moment when you hear music, you can draw that from listening because it’s kind of boundless in that way. I don’t think you can really explain it, but I’ve seen lives change. Someone will come up and say, ‘This particular song was the reason I got through this part in my life.’ And for someone to say something like that, it’s incredible, and I’ve seen that over and over again.”


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