How Lang found the Lord
Upon hearing that Jonny Lang's new album debuted at the top of Billboard's Christian Album chart, many a fair-weather local fan had to ask: "What chart now?"...
Upon hearing that Jonny Lang's new album debuted at the top of Billboard's Christian Album chart, many a fair-weather local fan had to ask: "What chart now?"
Perhaps they hadn't heard how Fargo's best-known musical export born in the past half-century has cut a new album, turned over a new leaf or how the two are connected.
It's understandable how we might have lost track of the blues wunderkind who went by Kid Jonny when he migrated down to Minneapolis a decade ago. Because, as he tells it, in the years after "Lie to Me" made a big splash and he moved to Los Angeles, he lost track of himself, too.
The week his new album, "Turn Around," came out in September, Lang -
a quiet interview subject who takes a beat to think about each question before responding - talked on the phone about his faith and his music.
A big-enough blues star to warrant a cameo in the "Blues Brothers" sequel in 2000, Lang was also a heavy drinker and drug user. Not the kind wallowing around at rock bottom - the kind who thinks, "Now this is the good life."
"I had no intention of giving it up, because I loved doing that stuff," says the 25-year-old. "But when God touched my life, literally, those desires left me in a moment, and I never went back to them."
Lang's parents split up when he was young, so he shuttled between his mom's place in the Twin Cities and his father's Fargo home. As a result, he didn't really grow up with a church home, though his parents did take him to services irregularly.
"I don't think I really ever got the fact that I could have a relationship with God," he says. "I thought that church was too big for me to grasp. It just seemed like such an ominous thing I couldn't obtain. That came later, I guess."
It's not that he wasn't open to faith. He just wanted, like so many do, the kind of proof he didn't figure he'd ever get.
"I just remember the thing I used to tell people," he says. " 'If Jesus is who you say he is, I'm not just going to believe it. He's going to have to show himself to me.' That happens to be exactly what happened."
It happened in 2001, when the father of his future wife (who at the time was his former girlfriend), Haylie Johnson, was terminally ill. Lang and Johnson's father, Cliff, were close, so he was visiting.
"It wasn't like - I didn't see Jesus," Lang says. "There was just one moment in that night where I felt the presence of God so strongly, and I'd never felt anything like it before. I was just overwhelmed by it."
He's trying to pare down the story to what he calls the "30-second version," but he gave a more detailed account in an interview last month with Christian Music Today.
While visiting Johnson, Lang left to get high with a friend who lived nearby, he told Christian Music. In the 10 minutes it took to get there, Cliff Johnson died. When Lang got the news and was walking out of his buddy's place, he says he felt a blast of wind into his chest he later realized was the Holy Spirit.
Later that evening, while talking with Haylie, he had another experience that convinced him he wasn't simply distraught over the death of his future father-in-law.
"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," he told the Christian music publication. "It was like I was throwing up, and the name 'Jesus' just came out of my mouth."
He didn't talk much publicly about the experience in the years following and admits he was leery to do so.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say it was kind of scary sometimes. More than we'd probably like to, we do care what people think about us," he says. "I was a little worried about that. More so that they would just say, 'OK, he's a young guy that was messed up at the time and, you know, needed something. He probably imagined it.' Just pass it off like that. Nevertheless, it is what happened to me, and it is the truth."
His next record, 2003's "Long Time Coming," had a more soulful sound and faith-informed lyrics like "You've learned to love the chains," but Lang did not address his newfound belief head-on.
This time around, he did. It made for the easiest recording process of his career.
"I'm so grateful to God for the things he's done in my life," Lang says. "I just wanted to give him credit in a more overt way than I had in the past. ... I wanted to come more from the standpoint of just sharing what had happened to me and have it be that, just a positive sharing type of thing. I'm really glad I did it. The things that are closest to your heart come out most easily. This really just flowed out of me, this record."
"Turn Around" explores all sorts of new roads for Lang, folding Gospel and pop influences, as well as traces of singers he admires like Stevie Wonder and James Taylor, into his blues-rock mix.
Karl Bakkum, owner of Melberg Christian Book & Gift in Moorhead, expects Lang to be welcomed by fans of Christian music.
"I think they'll be a market for it, just because he's an excellent artist. This type of craftsmanship and skill will sell whether you have a Christian label on it or a blues label on it," he says.
Lang says he didn't plan to release the album directly to the Christian marketplace - he really isn't that familiar with the genre - but decided to after it drew interest from those corners. Initially, he was anxious about being pigeonholed as a Christian artist.
"I hope everybody can listen to it and be comfortable and just be blessed by that," he says.
Bakkum was surprised but pleased when he opened his new releases catalog a while back and saw Lang's name.
"I think it's wonderful that he's using his gifts in a way that is positive and reflects his faith," he says.
Fargo fans who don't pick up the album may have a chance to hear the new material in person, Lang says. Though he hasn't scheduled it yet, he plans to play in Fargo in late winter or early spring.
"I hope I can do it as long as possible because it's the only thing I'm good at," he says. "As my teachers in Fargo know quite well, I didn't do so well in school. I was kind of a slacker. I really don't have much to fall back on."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535