An 18-year old with a screaming Telecaster and a sweet melodic voice, Jonny Lang currently weighs in as one of the great new hopes for blues-based guitar rock. The editors at Newsweek, in an unexpected burst of hipness, even gave Lang a place on their prestigious Century Club list, a roster of one hundred Americans expected to be influential in the next millennium.
On his second album, Wander This World, and throughout his, um, career, Lang has pushed the limits of his guitar, making room for himself a greyhound-thin, white blues guitarist -- in a world invented and inhabited by inveterate black men, and finding the brink of commercial success rarely seen by someone so young.
Lang grew up outside of Fargo, North Dakota, in various homes, including one he remembers best as a yellow rambler kind of house that was hard to sneak out of. As the third and only male child of four, Lang has mostly good memories of his childhood, riding his bike around the neighborhood and causing good-natured trouble at home. My sisters were great, says Lang, except they used to beat the crap out of me. Langs dad played the drums and mom dug the music of Motown, so the house was usually full of grooves and soul.
Jonny played sax before being stung by the blues guitar bug -- a revelation that hit when he was just 12, an age when most kids were still staring at cereal boxes and watching cartoons. Armed with a reissue Strat from dad, Lang began paying his dues on the North Dakota club circuit with a band called Jonny Lang and The Big Bang. In 1995 he released, the album Smokin' on small indie Baysound Records. The disc attracted 25,000 buyers, and lots of "look at this kid play!" amazement. But that same year, Lang decided he had outgrown his turf, so he moved with his father to Minneapolis. He plugged into the club circuit, and immediately began earning admirers, one fiery lick at a time. Also in Minneapolis, Lang hooked up with a bunch of ex-Prince musicians, hotshot talents who currently spread their wealth of soul around the Twin Cities.
David Z, one former Prince cohort, offered to produce a demo for Lang in 1996, and the recording got the boy signed to A&M Records. Z returned to produce Langs platinum debut, Lie To Me, which was released in January of 1997, and entered at No. 1 on the Billboard New Artist chart, garnering Lang massive commercial exposure. Huge tour slots followed: Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy; By age 16, he was sharing the stage with some of rock and blues' greatest players. And life just got better from there.
Guitar.com: Do you feel a long way from those old days in Fargo? Do you miss it?
Jonny Lang: Not as much as youd think. I miss the road more than I miss home. It wears on you like hell, but you get addicted to being out there sometimes. When I'm home I live on Lake Minnetonka, so I can take the boat out and go fishing. I'm not home that much, so I never get to spend time hanging out. I got a couple of buddies back in Fargo, my best friends. They work at the Pepsi plant loading trucks. But I don't feel like I'm missing anything.
Guitar.com: Your first guitar instructor wouldn't teach you anything but blues. That must have been a big turning point for you.
Lang: A friend of my fathers, Ted Larsen, told me hed teach me to play guitar if he could teach the blues and nothing else. I was a blues snob at 13 years old. For me, it was a trendy thing, just like wearing baggy pants. But I was totally open to it and I wouldn't have had it any other way. In fact, as time went on I got to be a pretty hardcore purist, a jerk for a while, actually, because I wouldn't listen to anything else. My teacher fed me records and I started learning early stuff. I practiced like six hours a day, and got into guys like B.B. [King], Muddy [Waters], Freddy [King], Lightnin' [Hopkins], and so on.
Guitar.com: You ended up learning from some of those guys later on, too. You toured with B.B. King and Buddy Guy.
Lang: I can't put it into words what its like playing with those guys. They're just both incredibly tasteful and soulful, but in different ways. Buddy has the Chicago dude thing down and B.B.s got the godfather thing going. And when I get up and get it on with them onstage, they totally kick my ass.
Guitar.com: What a thrill that must be for a guitar player.
Lang: Playing with B.B. has probably been the biggest thrill of my life. Talk about humbling! I'm sitting next to God here. I just wanted to sit next to him and listen, not play at all. But he lets 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. Its impossible.
Guitar.com: It seems like you've gradually moved on to new styles and new modes of expression.
Lang: I really feel like I need to move ahead all the time. But I'm kind of torn between writing in the blues and writing in other styles, so a lot of the songs I've been writing dont make sense these days. It's not that I feel the need to master something and then move on and master that and move on again. Ever since opening up my eyes I've just used blues as a foundation to create from. If what I create doesnt come from blues, I can always return to it and still be happy about it. Its just, if I don't try to move ahead I'll go insane. If you eat Cheerios for breakfast every day for your whole life you're gonna get damn sick of em. You're gonna need Lucky Charms in there once in a while, too, right?