first, let me just preface Christian Music Today‘s article below with my humble opinion of the man behind the music, mr. jonny lang. he’s a flippin’ genius. a slap in the face of modern blues rock. a gift to the music industry…to anyone who has ears to hear his delicious voice, soul-searchin’ lyrics & gutsy guitar riffs!
i say that cuz ricky & i saw him live. our senses came alive at that rogue theater show. we can’t wait to do it again (hopefully at new orlean’s house of blues)…especially now that he’s made an inspirational turn around with his life & his lyrics!
if you’re a visual person, click here to watch him sing his hit, “red light“, or here to see a video interview summing up his carreer in blues… but the written article below (by another of my favorite artists/lyricists, sara groves) goes into more detail about his life ~ way interesting stuff here.
…then, just go & see him live.
“I Hated Christianity”
Editor’s note: When we asked Sara Groves if she’d be interested in interviewing bluesman Jonny Lang for us, she practically freaked out. Groves, one of Christian music’s finest singer/songwriters, has long been a Lang fan, even before he gave his life to God a few years ago. We had a feeling that Groves, a great conversationalist, would make a fine interviewer—and we were right.
The first time I saw Jonny Lang, he was a 15-year-old kid, perched on a stool, his hair in his eyes—and playing his guitar and singing like he’d sold his soul to the devil. He was an irrefutable talent, and quickly became a young legend in the world of the blues and beyond, touring with The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and Sting, among others. I didn’t see Lang again till a few years ago when my husband Troy and I were watching The Late Show with David Letterman, and Lang was the music guest. When he took the stage that night, he was a very different guy we’d seen years before. As he sang, Troy and I looked at each other and said, “What happened to him?” As we would soon find out, apparently Jesus happened to him, as Lang explained in an interview accompanying what was then his new album, 2003’s Long Time Coming. Now Lang has a new album, Turn Around, which explores his newfound faith in confessional and contagious ways. We talked about the new album, and much more, before one of Lang’s recent shows.
In the song “Only a Man,” you sing, “I grew up singing songs in church with questions in my mind.” What questions?
Jonny Lang: 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 (laughs) …
How much of that old world—and those old ways—is a part of your new world?
Lang: When Jesus first got a hold of me, I just wanted to be a preacher. I thought, I’ve got to quit this music business and quit playing in these places. I was very zealous and on fire, so I thought everything I was doing just had to be canned. Then I realized that God called me to this place for a reason, and I needed to stay here. So yeah, I definitely have stayed in a lot of the same places and have a lot of the same friends. But I’ve lost a lot of friends too.
Has that been difficult?
Lang: I don’t want to come across saying, “Oh, I lost all my friends, poor me,” because a lot of it was just my not having very much wisdom. I would go around saying, “Repent!” You know, that just doesn’t fly. And it didn’t fly with me when I was young. I just forgot that.
You were so young when your career took off. Were you able to understand what was happening to you?
Lang: I knew that I loved to do it, and then people started coming out to see us play and I realized I could do this for a living. But, yeah, it was surreal a lot of times—you know, I was just trying to learn this guy’s songs in my bedroom three months ago, and now I’m playing on stage with him. Then we got to tour with all these bands like Aerosmith and Sting and the Rolling Stones. It was just really cool.
We’ve all heard stories about life on the road, but what did that look like that for you? You struggled with alcoholism, but you were so young. When did that start?
Lang: I don’t want this to sound like my parents neglected me or didn’t pay attention, because they taught me a lot of great things and I think they did a great job. But with that said, I did a lot of things that slipped by them. 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.
So did you ever have a ‘rock bottom’ experience?
Lang: I don’t think I really ever gave myself enough time to be in reality to know that I was at rock bottom. Any time I’d think, Oh, there’s reality, I’d just go over here and smoke this or snort that, you know. I just tried to keep reality at bay as best I could.
What got me off of that stuff was this one moment when God touched my life. I never really had an experience where I said, “I need you God.” It wasn’t like that. I was definitely spiritually hungry, but I was never necessarily desperate for God. But then one day he just …
… did it anyway?
Lang: Yeah, he did it anyway. Even when I just hated him. I mean I hated Christianity. I couldn’t stand to hear about Jesus. I just hated it.
So what happened? How’d you get from there to here?
Lang: 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.
Literally? Tell me what happened.
Lang: 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 rationalizing 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.
Sounds like it was a powerful moment.
Lang: 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 …”
Lang: Yeah. 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 it.”
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.
Sounds like a Damascus Road experience.
Lang: Yeah, I guess. I said, “God, nobody is going to believe me,” and then when I read about Paul, I thought, Okay, maybe they will.
Has it been hard to be so public, to be set up as an example right away?
Lang: I immediately felt like I owed it, and that 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 in to my old life and start living like that again. If I do, I will lose everything, and I know that, so yeah, 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, you know? 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 where doing this and that around me. I really do want to live in a way that will hopefully legitimize the message of Christ.
Even before this, you’ve always seemed deeply spiritual. Was music your God?
Lang: Yes, because I mistook that spiritual feeling I would have when I would perform for being god. You think just because there is power that you are on the right track. I didn’t know there was power on both sides. 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.
Your new album is pretty much a gospel album. Do you feel like your audience is coming with you?
Lang: So far. It hasn’t seemed to affect numbers, but it’s so neat …
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.
But that is not what is happening.
Lang: Yeah, and I’m really thankful.