“Anything’s possible,” announces guitarist Jonny Lang in a song of the same name on his latest album, Turn Around.
The tune, which revolves around that simple platitude, could easily have been a piece of tossed-off filler (and those who simply require more from their pop and rock music might still describe it as such), but even if the undeniably infectious, vintage ‘70s R & B groove of the backing track itself wasn’t enough to win over even the most hardened hearts, the lyrical inclusion of a healthy dose of personal insight helps elevate the song beyond the banal.
During the course of the cut, Lang —who at the tender age of only 26, often (and often peculiarly) sings like a wizened man two decades his senior— tells us that as a small child he was often chastised (by adults who felt they knew better) to “please put away the guitar,” opining that “The best you’ll ever be is a local star at the local bar.”
His response to those naysayers is that with the help and support of his family, he “went and did it anyway.” Then he moves in for the kill: “Now I’m here today, five records later / So you can hear me say: Don’t be deceived / Anything’s possible.”
In the hands of a singer less attuned to the necessity of sounding genuinely sincere in a format which begs for such aural legitimacy, this song could elicit snickers. Yet, Lang is —as I said— a peculiarly talented young man, and the polish and emotion with which the motivational message is delivered more than sells the tune.
Simply put, try as I might, it’s hard not to like this guy’s music, even when it’s always been assumed by many versed in the blues genre that his whole approach to the form is a bit of a shuck and jive.
Born Jon Gordon Langseth, Jr., this native of Fargo, North Dakota burst on the scene a decade ago, releasing his debut LP before he turned sixteen. That record, Lie To Me, turned heads and put Lang on the map as a teen sensation, but deservedly received mixed reviews from critics who found it a wee bit unseemly for someone barely through puberty to be affecting vocal mannerisms and tackling lyrical subject matter more commensurate with a man at least twice his age.
Still, he had extremely impressive chops even back then, and there was no doubt that —gimmicky marketing aside— he was a guitar prodigy with an affinity for blues music, even if it was undeniable that the very nature of that genre almost demands a certain level of maturity and life experience which he could not possibly possess.
His second album, Wander This World, earned him a Grammy nomination, as well as invitations to sit in and jam or tour with such giants of the form as B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Aerosmith, Buddy Guy and The Rolling Stones — but his Tiger Beat countenance and the fact that he also did such seemingly “un-blues” things as guesting on a Hanson album, fueled the perception by many that he had received too much acclaim too early in life and had failed to pay his dues in the accepted fashion.
“I wasn’t out there knocking on doors or desperately trying to get my demo to anyone who’d listen,” Lang admits. “That’s how most people get where they want to be in this business. I don’t feel like I ever had to do that, and I kinda feel bad sometimes because I haven’t had to put in as much legwork to get started as a lot of people. It was pretty easy for me.”
It was in this hotbed of guilt, stress and growing popular acclaim that Lang wound up turning to drugs and alcohol. Those vices would eventually get the better of him, and in the kind of fateful twist that no one wishes on another, he wound up battling personal demons — and paying his dues. In spades.
If anything hovers over Turn Around (his first release to win a coveted Grammy Award), it is the overwhelming sense that things have changed for Lang. Now clean and sober, his artistic vision seems both clearer and less cocky. Lang attributes this shift primarily to a relatively newfound devotion to the Christian faith.
“I’ve been so incredibly blessed,” he recently told a reporter. “My wife and I just had our fifth anniversary. I get to do what I love for a living. But it wasn’t so long ago that I was spiraling downward in a lot of ways, until God touched my life and set me on the right track. I feel a huge debt to give glory back to Him for everything He has done for me.”
This is not merely something he’s eager to speak about. It is key to the promotion of not only this album, but seemingly, to all his future work as well.
The record (which prominently features a tune co-written by five-time Grammy winner and gospel music superstar Steven Curtis Chapman, as well as guest appearances by Doobie Brothers vocalist Michael McDonald, Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins and Lang’s actress/singer wife Haylie Johnson) has been marketed directly to blues, rock and contemporary Christian radio formats, and Lang is being touted as one of the few young artists with the potential for major crossover success on both fronts.
Turn Around is one of the more interesting Christian-themed blues/rock/soul albums to come down the pike since Bob Dylan’s storied, high-profile conversion and the subsequent release of his landmark 1979 “God-Rock” LP Slow Train Coming.
That’s not to say that lyrically Lang’s record approaches the sweeping, bombastic, fire-and-brimstone heights of that stirring (yet profoundly polarizing) call to arms. This young man is not drawing any lines in the sand.
This is a collection of songs of redemption and salvation to be sure, but whereas Dylan sang of a “slow train” that was picking up speed “just around the bend,” and which, like Curtis Mayfield’s own heaven-sent and glory bound locomotive in his classic tune “People Get Ready” promised eternal life to all who’d board, he also cautioned that “You either got faith or you got unbelief/And there ain’t no neutral ground.”
On Turn Around, Lang seems to be almost casually suggesting that his listeners take heart in his example, and get right with God: No ultimatums; no shock tactics; no “vanity of vanities.”
Under the direction of the immensely successful music industry honcho Ron Fair —who was at the helm of Geffen Records before becoming president of A&M/Interscope, and has played a key role in the development and success of Christina Aquilera, Vanessa Carlton and Pussycat Dolls— Lang and his whip-tight band conjure up musical references and allusions to everyone from Stevie Wonder (whose uplifting, groove-driven ‘70s output is an avowed touchstone for Lang) to the Reverend Al Green (whose cooing falsetto Lang often emulates) to Eric Clapton protege Robert Cray (whose trademark combination of mellow-yet-biting fretwork, Memphis “chank” rhythm and swirling hammond organ could easily be seen as a template for much of this record’s sound).
Lang —speaking from his Southern California home— tells Connect that one of the reasons this record seems to be resonating with such a wide variety of people is that, at this stage in his life, he realizes his approach to songwriting has changed, and that many people may be picking up on that.
“It seems that it’s so much easier to write songs about something negative,” he muses aloud. “You know, it seems those songs are the ones people enjoy the most, and I guess that’s because they can relate them to their own lives and something they may have had to get through on their own. Being fairly happy as I am now, I guess I’m not as inclined to write sad songs. I think it’s much harder to write a positive song without sounding cheesy. (laughs) It’s hard. I mean, ‘happy happy, joy joy...’ Who wants to hear that?”
Lang says that his newfound faith is “the most important thing in his life,” and crucial to an understanding of his music from this point forward. Yet, even though he’s gained many new listeners from his high-profile conversion, he is well aware many of his existing fans are not comfortable with the shift.
“I know from experience that before this was a part of my own life, I simply did not want to hear about Jesus! I mean, get it out of my face! I think that those few bad experiences of mine are like most people’s. Folks come at you with guns blazing, and it just ruins everything,” he says.
“Even the most subtle remark about God or Jesus becomes offensive to you. I totally understand that way of looking at things because I used to feel that way. Totally,” he says. “So, these days, I just try to come at it from an angle of sharing something that happened to me and was a great thing for my life — rather than asking everyone to follow me. If someone hears one of my songs and says to themselves, ‘wow, he sounds happier than he’s ever been,’ and they wind up making that decision on their own, then I’m happy about that.”
In other words, he’s not out to convert people?
“The truth is, I am looking to convert people! (laughs) But at this stage, I don’t wanna be that guy who leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But I’d certainly be lying if I said I didn’t want everyone to experience what I’ve experienced. So, I guess it’s both. ç
Jonny Lang (with special guest Jon McLaughlin) plays 7:30 pm, Monday, June 4 at the Lucas Theatre. Tickets are still available at www.lucastheatre.com or by calling the SCAD Box Office at 525-5050.