Going to the crossroads

Johnny Lang

Chain-linked with the big guy upstairs: After a high-profile bout with booze and drugs, still-too-young-to-run-for-president blues prodigy Johnny Lang saw the light and was welcomed into the Christian-music fold.

There’s a certain predictable trajectory to the life of a blues musician. It goes something like this: Start young, cut a deal with the devil, release a catalogue of endlessly imitated works, get hooked on alcohol and/or drugs and then either a) OD; drown; get stabbed, poisoned or shot, a la Robert Johnson, or b) find God and live to a ripe old age, in the manner of Son House.

Jonny Lang — though only just old enough to rent a car — came to the crossroads and selected option B. His latest album, Turn Around is, as he recently explained to Christian media outlet Newrelease Tuesday is “just about how I turned my life around and how I made a decision to allow God to do that.”

He goes on to explain that his song, “Only A Man” is “about the day that God humbled me … There was a time in my life where I basically lived for myself and satisfied my own will and desires … [and then God] just knocked me down.”

Lang seems astonished by how the Christian genre has embraced his songs. “I was kind of surprised to learn one of the songs off the album — [“Bump In The Road”] the song I considered [to be] the least outwardly about the Lord — was the one that charted on the Christian charts,” he told Xpress.

While musicians have been known to get religion (see George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Al Green and Prince), the question is how stepping into the light affects not the musicians’ souls, but their music. After all, just because an artist decides to get in good with his maker, does that mean the rest of us should be subjected to two decades of PG-appropriate gospel?

Because the Savior is all about adult contemporary

If at 25, Jonny Lang seems a bit young to be married, settled down, born again and recording tracks with Doobie Brothers vocalist Michael McDonald, it’s worth noting he started his career a decade ago. At 16, Lang (born Jon Gordon Langseth, Jr. — he changed it when, at 13, he joined his first band: The Bad Medicine Blues Band, which became Kid Jonny Lang and the Big Bang) burst onto radio playlists with his song “Lie to Me.” At a tender age when his performing peers were ensconced in boy bands, Lang ripped chords and howled like a whisky-soaked middle-ager with a bad attitude.

He sounded 40, but looked every bit the ninth grade skate-punk with torn jeans and shaggy hair — a disarming juxtaposition — landing him real-life Almost Famous status. Only Lang, unlike Cameron Crowe’s doppelganger in the movie, wasn’t just a hanger-on with big-name bands; he was famous.

“I joined my first band when I was 13, and shortly thereafter started drinking and smoking pot — the gateway drug,” he confessed in an interview with Christianity Today. “And then I just started getting into all sorts of other kinds of drugs. I was partying pretty hard, and, you know, loving it.”

But five years ago, the musician had a religious convergence. On the eve of the death of his now-wife’s father, Lang believes he encountered Jesus. And from that moment, the guitarist’s relationship to his music changed.

“Blues fans probably won’t swarm the shelves for this album, as it isn’t a violent guitar brawl,” The Daily Cougar warned in a recent review of Turn Around, “but expect more of this direction from Jonny Lang in the future, as it’s clearly where his heart lies.”

Crossing Johnny Winter off the guest list

It’s not that Turn sounds, at first listen, like Contemporary Christian. There’s the trademark amped-up guitar in the opening rocker, “Bump in the Road,” and the album is a balanced mix of upbeat blues-influenced numbers and slower, falsetto-led ballads.

Even the slower numbers are hard to criticize outright: Lang has a nice falsetto and, when not hidden behind guitar licks, manages an admirable range and sensitivity. The problem is, range and sensitivity tends to equal Josh Groban, Michael Buble and Elton John on the Lion King soundtrack. Good for Disney; bad for blues-rock fans.

“I hope to be able to keep doing what I’m doing,” Lang admits. “That’s all you really can hope for, [but] it’s such a fickle world, business-wise.”

It’s a funny comment from someone who’s managed to pull off an entire career by an age when most people are just starting to think about what they want to be when they grow up. Not to mention Lang has toured with the likes of Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones, appeared in Blues Brothers 2000, played for the Clintons and was nominated for a Grammy.

But for Lang, the idea of rock-fueled fame seems to have lost its luster. “I mistook that spiritual feeling I would have when I would perform for being God,” he told Christianity Today. “Now music has taken a major back seat to God. Music is something I definitely enjoy and am passionate about, and it’s strange, but I don’t have the same infatuation with it that I used to.”

However, gospel fans should keep their ears peeled: The guitarist has hinted at an album of that slant in the near future, and the hedonistic-rock-turned-choir-backed-gospel is a proven formula (see Solomon Burke) for both success and longevity.

“The majority of the people I’m aware of who are blues artists are mostly heavy partiers,” Lang notes. “I know some really old guys, like 80s or 90s, who are still drinking a fifth of whiskey a day and how they’re still ticking is beyond me.”

“But such is life,” he adds. “You decide one road or another. There aren’t too many decisions other than those two. You can destroy yourself or preserve yourself.”

Jonny Lang plays the Orange Peel on Monday, Nov. 6. Reeve Carney opens the 9 p.m. show. $30 in advance, $32 at the door. 225-5851.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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