At 19, Jonny Lang encountered what he calls the "craziest experience I've ever had." It was 1999, and the father of the Los Ange-les-based musician's then-girlfriend/now wife, Haylie, was on his deathbed. Lang was sitting with Haylie in her back yard, and the word Jesus inexplicably came out of his mouth, and he began shaking in his chair. Hours later, Haylie's father, Cliff, died. On that day, Lang felt a moment of strange calmness, the work of a presence he later believed to be the spirit of God. As the born-again Christian clarifies now, when the incident occurred, he had no intention of acknowledging that God existed–much less accepting His influence.
"[God] just literally introduced himself to me. It's cool; I'm glad He did it that way," he says. "I'm a person who is very skeptical, and I needed something like that to make me understand it."
To a similar degree, Lang's initial experience with the blues would be life-changing. When the North Dakota-bred musician was 12 years old, his father took him to see some friends play in a group called the Bad Medicine Blues Band. Lang was particularly struck by the guitar tone he heard and the energy of their performance.
"I had never really heard live music before, and I definitely never heard guitar as a featured instrument with that style of music before," says Lang, who had been raised on classic soul and R&B artists such as Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson. "I was like, 'I have got to learn how to do that, at least a little bit.'"
He did–to remarkable results.
Lang became a blues-guitar prodigy, speeding toward fame based in large part on his age. He released his solo debut, Lie to Me, in 1997 and would soon enlist Bad Medicine to back him in Kid Jonny Lang & the Big Bang. The teenager played gigs with B.B. King, Sting, the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith; appeared in Blues Brothers 2000; and even performed for President Bill Clinton.
Just as all those clichés about child celebrities and substance abuse attest, Lang downed his share of alcohol and party drugs, living and loving his party-centric lifestyle until Christianity suddenly came along. He has since completely scrubbed that side of him away, at least publicly. His conversation with OC Weekly aside, Lang–who identifies with no denomination–has spoken openly and in detail about faith-related issues.
In a 2006 Beliefnet interview, he said that he was "really thankful that now I'm able to have communion with [God's] spirit in playing music," and he named his gospel-shaded 2006 record Turn Around in tribute to the faith that has changed his life. Lyrically, 2013's Fight for My Soul deals less with any explicit concepts of faith and more with issues of personal struggle and heartache. On the music front, the bluesiness of his vocal style still rides proudly, but the instrumentation falls toward polished, confidently delivered folk-rock and pop rock.
Even with all this talk of faith, Lang doesn't consider himself an explicitly Christian rock or Christian blues artist, though he acknowledges that that status could shift with time. "Most folks know what I believe, and they can hear it in the music. Even if they don't believe the same thing, it's my hope that, in a way that's not confrontational, they could still encounter God in my music and maybe experience the wonderful things I've experienced with God. I think God [wants them to experience those things], too. He wants it to be on terms that don't make them run for the hills," he says with a laugh, "'cause I remember being that person, too."