Tony Cummings reports on the critically acclaimed blues & soul man JONNY LANG and his amazing conversion to Christianity
The release of 'Turn Around' by 26 year old Jonny Lang belatedly alerted the Christian scene to one of the most prodigious talents on the whole blues and rock arena. Although singer/guitarist Jonny had toured with the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Sting, appeared in the Blues Brothers movie and released some critically acclaimed albums it was only his surprise appearance on the Stephen Curtis Chapman 'All Things New' in 2004 which first alerted the CCM world to the fact that Jonny was a believer. His subsequent 'Turn Around' album was not only bristling with songs of faith it turned out to be one of the finest albums on 2006, his soulful vocals and dazzling guitar work coupled to autobiographic songs of faith making for a breathtaking musical concoction. On its US release in September 2006, Jonny told Christian Retailing magazine how the album came about through a chance conversation with A&M Records. "It was their idea for me to do a gospel records, which is crazy, I guess. I was in the studio with the president of A&M, Ron Fair. . . I had mentioned a couple of times, 'I'm going to church tomorrow.' It was pretty light. . . He said, 'Dude, you need to make a gospel record.' And I said, 'Yes, I do; you're exactly right.'"
One of the outstanding songs on 'Turn Around' is "Thankful". Said Jonny, "That song basically just sums up how I feel these days. I really have a debt of gratitude to God for what he has done for me in my life and the ability to do what I love for a living. He's given me a great wife. . . I don't feel like my life can possibly get any better."
In an interview for Christianity Today with singer/songwriter Sara Groves, Jonny spoke about what his reaction would be if his sudden gospel direction alienated his secular fans. "So far, it hasn't seemed to affect numbers. I was reading this parable the other night, where Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, and when a man found it, he bought that field to get the treasure. It just really hit me. It occurred to me that the treasure represents Jesus, and the field is the cost of what it takes to get that treasure. There are just some things in my life. . . I see the field and it looks so daunting, the cost looks so daunting. But that man in the story sold everything he had to buy the field - just so he could get the treasure. Obviously the treasure is worth so much more than the field, and if you were wise you would sell everything and buy the field. So, I guess with that said, if everybody said, 'Forget Jonny Lang and his music,' I guess that is what it would have to be."
In the interview with Groves, Jonny spoke about the song "Only A Man" which contained the line "I grew up singing songs in church with doubts in my mind." Jonny filled in the details. "My parents got divorced when I was about four years old. My mom lived in Minneapolis and my dad lived in Fargo, so we'd go back and forth, my little sister and I, between them. My mom would take us to church, but it never really came off to me that I could have a relationship with God. Something about it was too big for me to get. So I just had all these questions: What are we singing about? What are we doing here? And to what end? From an early age [as a popular musician], I was presented with a lot of adult-type activities, and so that, combined with me being a pretty rebellious kid."
In another interview Jonny said, "Ever since I can remember I've wanted to be involved in music playing it, being around it, anything. I'd be happy playing on a street corner, probably happier in a lot of ways just because there are so many stresses that go along with selling a lot of albums."
Ex-band mate and teacher Ted Larsen exposed Jonny to the blues. "When I started playing guitar Ted said, 'Just plug your cord straight into your amp and don't go through any pedals. You don't want that stuff.' As time went on, I used some effects, but I've slimmed it down a lot. It's a simple kind of full and dirty sound."
As a fresh-faced teenage musician Jonny paid his dues having played hundreds of regional gigs as Jonny Lang & The Big Bang. He said, "When we moved to Minneapolis from Castelton, North Dakota we thought we were hot stuff. Then we saw a band called Mambo's Combo, who were the best musicians I had seen up to that point. We looked at each other and said, 'We suck.' The funk scene got under my skin in a big way."
But as his musical prowess developed so did more negative aspects of his lifestyle. "I started smoking when I was 11. I joined my first band when I was 13, and shortly thereafter started drinking and smoking pot - the gateway drug. From there I just started drinking more and more, until it got the point where I was definitely an alcoholic. I couldn't not drink. I had to wake up and drink. I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, and then I just started getting into all sorts of other kinds of drugs. I was partying pretty hard, and, you know, loving it. I loved doing that stuff. I never got to the point where I thought, Oh, I have to stop."
Career-wise Jonny quickly became a hot property. Jonny Lang & The Big Bang's 1995 independent album 'Smokin'' sold over 25,000 copies and brought him to the attention of major labels. He signed with A&M in 1996 and when his album 'Lie To Me' was released it debuted at number one on Billboard's New Artist chart. The acclaim rolled on, from rave reviews to a listing in Newsweek's Century Club of the 100 Americans expected to be influential in the next millennium. He swept the category for Best New Guitarist in Guitar magazine's readers' poll and made a scorching cameo in the film The Blues Brothers in 2000 performing "634-5789" with Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd. In 1997 he also appeared at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York with Jeff Beck and filmed an hour long Disney Channel In Concert special. Acknowledged as a superlative guitarist Jonny guested on albums as diverse as Willie Nelson's 'Mile Cow Blues', Hanson's 'This Time Around' and John Mayall's 'Along For The Ride' while his own album 'Wander This World' (1998) sold well.
But then in 2000 something happened which was to utterly change the direction of Jonny's life. He told Sara Groves, "When people used to try to persuade me with the message of Jesus, I would say, 'I understand that you believe that, but I don't. He's going to have to basically show up and let me know who he is, or I'm not going to believe it.' And that's what he did. He literally did that. My wife Haylie and I were friends at the time. Her dad, Cliff, was kind of like another dad to me. He was terminally ill and he was being taken care of at their home. They thought he had maybe a couple of weeks to live, so I was hanging out at their place. One night, I went to my buddy's place, and we were going to smoke pot. He only lived a few minutes away, but when we walked in the door, the phone rang. It was Hailey's mom, saying Cliff had just died - just in that 10 minutes we were gone. We left to go back immediately, and as I was going down the hallway, I just felt - I mean, I know it was the Holy Ghost now, but then I didn't have any idea what it was. It was just like a wind that went wham right into my chest and it stopped me in the hallway. It was unbelievable, and I was so caught off guard by it. I wasn't thinking about God or anything. I had no clue what just happened, but something just happened.
"I started rationalising as we were in the car. I thought this is probably some primal instinct rising up in me because someone just died. But I had felt myself change in that moment. I was really a self-centered person before that, but something had changed my perspective. I was more sober minded than I had ever been. It's hard to explain. So much happened that night. After a while I asked Haylie if she would like to go out back and talk for a while. And honestly, I just felt really relieved that this was over, that Cliff wasn't suffering any more, and they could start healing. At that point, it was like this big weight had been lifted. Again, I was not thinking about God, not at all. In the middle of our conversation, from that same spot that I felt something had hit me earlier, I just felt something start welling up, just burning in me, and it came up out of my throat. It was like I was throwing up, and the name 'Jesus' just came out of my mouth. I just said 'Jesus. . .' And when I said 'Jesus' my whole body started shaking. Haylie was looking right at me. . .(laughing).
"This is the part of my story where I've just said, 'Lord, if I'm ever
doing interviews, what should I say?' People are going to think I'm
insane, you know? Nevertheless, it's what happened. I knew it was
Jesus immediately from the moment I started shaking. It was like he
just came up and introduced himself to me. I remember him saying, 'You
don't have to have this if you don't want it.' And I said, 'No, I want
I kept shaking and I knew when it was done that I had been completely set free of all my addictions, and I knew that I didn't have to smoke or drink or do drugs anymore. All I could do was fall on the ground and I gave my life to him right there. I was just in shock. I thought, I totally despised you, and you just did this to me. It's been a process ever since."
Haylie became a Christian too and after they had married the couple began to forge a new life in Los Angeles. In 2003 Jonny recorded the critically acclaimed 'Long Time Coming' album. He said at the time, "Musically I wanted to explore my songwriting, branching out into my music. I've been playing blues since I started and I wanted to go in more of a soul, R&B direction. The blues was such a great place for me to start, 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. I think the new record definitely bridges the generation gap. People who come to our concerts range from people my age to my grandfather's age. I love seeing the crowd at the front of the stage, eyes closed and shaking their heads. That's the most magical thing about it."
One of the standout tracks on 'Long Time Coming' was the soulful "Beautiful One" which received Cross Rhythms radio airplay. But it was, of course, 'Turn Around' which got Jonny noticed by the myopic gatekeepers of American Christian radio. Today, Jonny takes seriously his function as a Christian role model. He said, "I immediately felt I was indebted to God. At this point I don't have a choice in the matter. He's God, and he irrefutably revealed himself to me, and I have no excuse to go back into my old life and start living like that again. If I do, I will lose everything, and I know that. It's all or nothing. But it doesn't all come from a place of trying to impress everybody. He's really taking me through this process of trying to cast aside every weight that does so easily beset us. And I just keep uncovering more weights that I need to cast aside. But I really do want to be a good example. I don't want some compromising thing written about me where I was seen somewhere and people were doing this and that around me. I really do want to live in a way that will hopefully legitimize the message of Christ.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.