Jonny Lang wasn’t one of those kids who first picked up a guitar when he was barely out of diapers. But he was a quick study.
At age 12, his father took him to see the Bad Medicine Blues Band, which motivated the young Lang to take lessons from Bad Medicine guitarist Ted Larsen. By the time he was 13, Lang was actually playing in the Bad Medicine Blues Band. And three years later—before he even had his driver’s license—Lang had a hit record.
“I just practiced every day, basically, for two years and was able to take guitar lessons from a great guitar player and play in a band during that time, too,” Lang said.
Once known for being one of two white teen blues guitarists (Kenny Wayne Shepherd being the other) to score hit records around the same time, the Fargo, N.D., native is now grown up — though still a young 29. Like Shepherd last year, Lang headlines this year’s Avila Beach Blues Festival, which also features funk acts Tower of Power and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk.
Lang and Shepherd are used to the comparisons. Last year, Shepherd told The Tribune: “Early on, the media really tried to put us at odds with one another. People were taking sides—Kenny versus Jonny. But we get along really well.”
Now that they’re older, few compare them. But in the early days, Lang said, there was a sense of rivalry, mostly created by others.
“We always joke about that,” Lang said. “There were his fans and my fans, and they wanted us to hate each other.”
They don’t hate each other. In fact, the two have performed together with the Experience Hendrix tribute tour, which ended another run this spring.
Despite the obvious comparisons, there are differences between the two. While both are known for their blues guitar, Shepherd has an edge when it comes to guitar. Lang, meanwhile, has always been known for his intense vocals.
Even as a teen, critics said he sounded like a middle-aged bluesman. His raspy vocals do at times recall old-time acts, like Howlin’ Wolf. But his voice also features an intensity shown in blues-inspired rockers like Joe Cocker.
Lang hasn’t always just been influenced by the blues. Some of his early heroes were soul acts like Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder. Lang actually sang Wonder’s urban plight classic “Living For the City” at the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony in 2004.
“That was nerve-wracking,” he said. “We had been doing that song for probably a year in our set before we got asked to do it there. So I was comfortable with that song at that point. But, man, it was like Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight —all these people in the front row.”
Of course, Lang should be used to that kind of pressure. After all, he’s toured with the Rolling Stones, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. And he’s jammed with Aerosmith, Michael McDonald and Jeff Beck.
“Jeff Beck was the only time I’ve ever cried listening to live music,” Lang said. “He played ‘A Day in the Life’ — you know, the Beatles song — as an instrumental. Dude, I was just undone. It was incredible.”
While Beck is generally considered one of the greatest guitarists in the rock era, Lang said it’s difficult to rank them.
“There’s no way to quantify that,” said Lang, a big fan of James Taylor’s guitar playing. “I think the best way to rate any artist in any genre is just how much they changed things for the next people. I think Hendrix is probably the most game-changing electric player. Clapton is right in there, too.”
While Lang is known to have some chops on guitar, he gives credit to his predecessors.
“I’m kind of lazy as far as trying to develop my own style” on guitar, he said. “I really feel like those influences sort of trickle their way into the way I play. I definitely view myself as standing on all of my influences’ shoulders as far as how I sound and the riffs I play. I can’t say that I own any of those riffs, but that’s the cool thing about music — it can be adapted in an infinite number of ways.”
Lang is currently promoting his first live album, “Jonny Lang Live at the Ryman,” which features many of his classic songs, including his most known, “Lie to Me.”
In the digital age, Lang said, recording live albums has been simplified.
“It used to be that you had to get a big recording rig brought to the show, and it was this big deal and you had to spend a bunch of money, and there’s that feeling, ‘OK, we’re recording tonight, boys, so don’t screw up!’ So there’s all that pressure.”
For this album, he said, a year’s worth of concerts were recorded so they could get the best — in this case, a show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
“It was cool because you knew you were being recorded every night. So there was no pressure.”
While some artists re-craft songs for live performances, others remain faithful to the studio version. Lang said he falls somewhere in between.
“I think it’s a little bit of a happy medium,” he said. “I think it’s expected for there to be some variation in the arrangement for a live record. At least for me, I would want to hear that. Because I already have the (studio) album. It’s also important not to lose the song in all of that.”