Former child prodigy still belting out the blues
URBANA — Guitarist Jonny Lang always wanted to be singer, for as long as he can remember.
Then one evening when he was 12, his father took him to a Bad Medicine Blues Band concert in Fargo, N.D., where they lived.
"That was my first real concert I had been to," Lang said. "I had heard recorded music, but that first time hearing it live just did something to me.
"Hearing the guitar played the way he was playing it, just the tone of it just freaked me out. I said, 'I got to learn how to play that thing.'"
Lang, now 32 and one of the guitarists who will perform at Ellnora The Guitar Festival on Thursday night, borrowed his older sister's guitar and took a few lessons from Ted Larsen, one of the band's members. Larsen started by teaching Lang some rhythm guitar techniques.
"I wanted to play Nirvana songs, so I brought him all these songs I wanted to learn," Lang recalled. "He said, 'OK, maybe we'll get to that. For now, we'll learn how to play some of this stuff.'"
That would have been Albert King. Larsen gave Lang a King record and told him to listen to it. King, who died in 1992, had been a major influence in blues guitar.
"That's pretty much where I fell in love with that kind of guitar playing," Lang said.
Lang, though, didn't just fall in love with blues guitar playing. He became a child prodigy on the instrument. And soon he began to incorporate other styles into his playing.
And within several months of his having first picked up guitar, he joined the Bad Medicine Blues Band, which was rechristened Kid Jonny Lang & the Big Bang.
He said it wasn't that easy: He struggled like everybody else.
But he kept in mind what he wanted to sound like.
"I kept kind of following that. I was just addicted to it and I played every day," he said.
By the time he was 15, he and his father moved from Fargo to Minneapolis. There Lang & the Big Bang released their debut album, "Smokin'," in 1995.
It became a regional hit, leading to a major-label bidding war which ended with Lang signing to A&M Records, in 1996.
Those days were crazy and fun, he said.
"It was a blur, kind of. That my parents allowed me to do that at a young age was just incredible, of course."
Lang ended up dropping out of school while in ninth grade to focus on his music. He never finished high school but has promised to get his GED.
He now lives in California with his wife and their four children; he and his band perform about 200 gigs a year depending on whether they're promoting an album.
As they are now — after a seven-year recording hiatus for Lang, on Sept. 17 he will release on the Concord Music Group label his new album, "Fight For My Soul," the follow-up to his Grammy Award-winning 2006 album "Turn Around."
"This particular record has taken quite a long time to finish for a lot of different reasons," Lang said in a news release. "Most of all, I started having kids a few years back. Between being with the family and being out on the road touring, the last thing you want to do when home is to go make a record."
He said he is happy with and proud of the tracks on "Fight For My Soul." He wrote or co-wrote all of them, and they defy categorization.
Lang worked on his new album for three years with producer Tommy Sims, who co-wrote Eric Clapton's Grammy-winning "Change the World."
Lang early on had started incorporating into his music what Guitar Player magazine writer Michael Ross called "Stevie Wonder-style funk, gospel and acoustic-based pop that wouldn't seem out of place on a John Mayer record."
Unlike other teen and tween blues-guitar wunderkinds, Lang not only continued to grow and improve, but also distinguished himself by producing his own sound, Ross wrote.
"Singing is another area where Lang differed from the typical blues prodigy; out of his 16-year-old mouth came a raspy sound normally associated with 40-year-old veteran soul singers," Ross wrote.
Lang told Ross that some of his first memories of music are of his singing along to Motown records with his mom and sisters.
"I have always loved to listen to singers, so I have been trained to come at music from that direction," he said.
As for the guitar, Lang, who plays a Telecaster and a Les Paul, said, "it's crazy what something with just a few strings on it can do:
"I think electric guitar kind of just changed the game for music in general in a bigger way than any other instrument has because it's used in almost every style of music, because it can be so many things."