Jonny Lang has been called a prodigy, a virtuoso, and a once-in-a-generation blues artist. Whatever label you apply, his extraordinary talent is the real thing. Lang catapulted into the music spotlight when he was only 13. Critics and fans alike were astounded by his soulful playing and gravelly vocals. He sounded more like a 40 year blues veteran than a teenager from the plains of North Dakota.
His debut solo album, “Lie to Me”, was recorded when he was just 15 years old. It went platinum, as did the following year’s release, “Wander this World.” Lang spent his teenage years with guitar legends like B.B. King and Buddy Guy and toured almost non-stop with the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Sting. Altogether, he’s recorded five albums and earned a Grammy nomination.
Lang’s accolades are far-reaching. He was named the Best New Guitarist in Guitar magazine’s reader’s poll and was also named to Newsweek’s Century Club of the 100 Americans expected to be influential in the next millennium. He was even profiled in U.S News and World Report.
His latest recording chronicles his incredible spiritual journey and is due out in early 2006.
Between the drinking, the drugs and my fascination with magical religions…, I was about as far away from God as I could possibly be. But my family kept praying for me, and I know God honored their prayers and snatched me up out of all that. I don’t think I could have written a better storyline than what God has given me.
I spent my childhood on a farm outside the small town of Casselton, North Dakota – an agriculturally rich spot in the heart of the Red River Valley. My father was a farmer as was his father before him. I probably would have been a farmer too. But instead, I found music.
My parents had a huge pile of records. They listened to a lot of Motown, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding. My mom is a great singer – she even went down to Nashville to cut a demo at one point and took a shot at a music career. But she chose to raise a family instead of pursuing music. So I’ve been around music my whole life.
When I was 12, my dad took me to see a band some of his friends were in called the Bad Medicine Blues Band. It was the first concert I’d ever been to and I was thrilled. The guitar player, Ted Larson, really inspired me; I wanted to be just like him. My dad gave me a guitar for my 13th birthday, and I was fortunate enough to take lessons from Ted.
It wasn’t too long before they asked me to join the band and changed the name to Jonny Lang and the Big Bang. About a year later we made an album together called “Smokin’.”
I got involved in “adult” activities at a very young age. I started drinking, and smoking cigarettes. But there was an unwritten rule in our band that there was no drinking the day of the show. So I managed to keep things in check... for a while.
After about two years of playing together, we went down to Minneapolis to take part in a Showcase event. There were a bunch of record labels at the show looking for new acts to sign. I ended up getting signed as a solo artist by A&M Records.
What happened to me after that is almost a blur. The first album we did together, Lie to Me, debuted at #1 on Billboard’s New Artist chart. My next album was just as successful. The excitement and pressure of being with a major label definitely changed things. I was on the road constantly, playing with musicians twice my age in places where they check your id at the door. But it didn’t matter how old I was because I was the headliner.
By the time I was 17, I was an alcoholic and smoking two packs a day. I also started doing drugs. It was mostly marijuana, but there were other drugs as well. In my position, anything I wanted was just handed to me. I used cocaine, ecstasy, and hallucinogens. I really loved to be high. It got to be such a problem, that if I wasn’t high I didn’t feel normal.
Despite the fact that my parents divorced when I was young, they still tried to get me to go to church with them and have me attend Sunday school. But I never really had an interest in religion. I saw things that really burned me and turned me off to Christianity – especially hypocrisy. However, what turned me off the most about Christianity was that I’d never seen the power of God move. It was just a lot of going through the motions but not experiencing His power or His presence. I thought the miracles you saw on TV were just hoaxes. And I certainly wasn’t interested in being held accountable for my actions, which is basically what it all boils down to.
If anybody tried to talk to me about God or Jesus I would say things like, “Okay, I’ve heard that one and I’m not interested.” I got involved in a lot of less accepted forms of spiritual expression that I thought were the right path… But I found out later where the real power is.
When I was 16 I met the most wonderful girl in Los Angeles while on tour and became great friends with her and her family. I fell in love with her right away, but she was scared of me – who could blame her? Eventually we started dating. When I was in town her family would try to get me to go to church with them. But I was thinking, “Don’t even try.” I’m just so thankful that they loved me because I was such a mess. They loved me through all that and God gave them a heart to stick with me.
Fast forward a bit. Haylie and I had been broken up for a period of time but I was still real tight with her family. In fact, her father, Cliff, was like a second dad to me. That sometimes made it kind of uncomfortable between me and Haylie.
Cliff had become very sick – he had Hepatitis C and cancer all over his body. It got so bad that He was being cared for by hospice nurses in their home. I had a break in my schedule and was able to go to California for a visit.
One night while I was there, I decided to go out with a friend of mine to get high. We went to his apartment, but before we had a chance to do anything, the phone rang. It was Haylie’s mom ... Cliff had just died. I remember feeling relieved, because he had been suffering so much, struggling for every breath. Honestly, I was more worried about interacting with Haylie and her family than I was about Cliff actually passing away. I didn’t have very much backbone, and I wasn’t prepared to deal with the whole situation.
But I had to go back to the house. While I was walking out in the hallway of my friend’s apartment building, I was suddenly hit in the stomach by the most incredible force. It spread from there and filled my whole body. I had this soundness of mind and this extraordinary peace that I just couldn’t explain. It was an incredible feeling.
After a few minutes I started rationalizing – it was probably just some sort of primal instinct that comes out to help cope with the death of a loved one. In my mind, I tried to find a natural explanation for it. I certainly never thought it might have something to do with God.
When I got back to the house, everybody was just beside themselves. I was not the kind of person who could deal with those kinds of emotions. But whatever had happened to me in that apartment hallway gave me a special wisdom to handle it. Everything I said was the perfect counsel – wisdom that I just did not possess. For some reason I had the most remarkable heart to be the counselor. I was even using words I’d never used before! At one point I said out loud, “Who are you?” Thinking back on it now, I can almost hear God chuckling in the background.
After a little while, the pastor of their church came over. I was upset at his presence; I figured he would just fill them with false hope and say things like, “Cliff is in a better place now.” A better place? I didn’t believe that... Cliff was just dead, end of story.
We all went into Cliff’s room and gathered around his body. The pastor started singing “Amazing Grace,” and I started rolling my eyes. But it was their dad, who was I to make waves, so I mumbled the words too. When the song was over, that same peace hit me again – and this time it hit the whole room. Everybody went from being completely hysterical to poof ... the grieving was done. Again, I figured it was just something therapeutic to help them manage.
When the morgue was coming to remove Cliff’s body, I thought it would be best if Haylie didn’t see that. So I took her to the back yard. We talked about what had been going on that night and our memories of her dad. All of a sudden, I got hit in the stomach again with that tremendous force. It was almost like I had to throw up – I couldn’t keep it down any longer. Bursting out of my mouth came the word “Jesus!” right in the middle of our conversation. The power of God hit me so hard that I started shaking in my chair. It was like somebody grabbed my shoulders and shook me forcefully back and forth. It didn’t hurt, but it was violent.
Yet at the same time I felt total peace. He didn’t say “Hey, this is Jesus” or anything, but I knew it was Him. I heard Him say to me, “You don’t have to have this if you don’t want it.” I was completely and utterly amazed, and I definitely wanted it. I wanted it more than anything I’d ever wanted in my whole life. I kept shaking and shaking until I fell to the ground. I gave my life to Christ right there at that moment.
While I was lying on the grass a filmstrip was playing in my mind. Memories of all the times I’d persecuted Christians came clearly into focus. I remembered how I’d told my dad he was crazy for what he believed. Later, I called my dad and told him I’d given my life to Jesus. Do you know what he said? “Yeah, I knew that would happen someday.” You see, they’d been praying for that moment all along.
At Cliff’s funeral a few days later, I confessed publicly that Jesus was my Lord and Savior. Haylie and her mom almost fell off their chairs. Even though Haylie had been sitting next to me when I had my encounter with the Lord, she doesn’t remember anything about it. In a court of law I’d probably be overruled – there’s no proof of what happened. But I know it happened, it was a private, supernatural moment between me and almighty God.
What’s so miraculous about this whole experience is that I had not been pursuing God. I despised Him. I was living with total hostility toward God and He still loved and delivered me. While I was shaking I was actually being delivered of all the addictions and demons inside me. From then on, I had absolutely zero cravings for the drugs, the alcohol or the tobacco. The best recovery program in the world can’t claim that.
He also healed me of another thing that night ... dyslexia. My whole life, this learning disability had prohibited me from sitting down and reading a book – it was just too frustrating. But when Jesus touched my life, he healed me of dyslexia and gave me a heart to read the Bible. More importantly, He gave me the ability to comprehend it. So what the enemy meant for evil – in the area of my reading comprehension – God meant for good. The first book I ever really read was the Bible – what a great place to start!
The most convincing reason that I know He’s real is that I know the person I was before I met Him. I know the way I thought and the way I conducted my life. That old person was replaced with a brand new one, a person who was willing to conform to the image of Christ. All the sermons in the world could not have convinced me of that. But He convinced me Himself and I know the truth. I’ve witnessed so many wonders and miracles and God just proves himself to me constantly. There’s nothing that could convince me otherwise. Jesus is the living God.
From the book: “How Do You Know He’s Real: God Unplugged” by Amy Hammond Hagberg.
For more information on the book and the author, go to www.amyhagberg.com.
For more information on Jonny Lang, go to www.JonnyLang.com.
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