North Dakota seems an unlikely place to find a saviour of the blues, but such is the case, as one of the old masters slowly passes the baton to a young gun from Fargo. For the last several years Jonny Lang, a native son of Fargo, has been mentored by the great Buddy Guy, one of the last living blues guitar legends and the last living recording star of the legendary Chess Records-era Chicago blues scene of the 1950s.
This Saturday, for the second year in a row, the two generations of blues guitar-slingers will share the stage at Star Plaza Theatre, with special guest Shemekia Copeland, the blues-belting daughter of late blues guitar great Johnny Copeland. The 31-year-old Lang’s latest release is 2009’s “Live At The Ryman” concert CD, but a new studio album with Chicago-born and Nashville-based producer Tommy Sims is soon forthcoming.
“When I write for an album, I write about the big topics at the forefront of my life at the time, things I’m emotionally invested in,” Lang said of his song-crafting method and why each of his five studio albums tend to have a flavor, style and groove all their own. “Each (album) represents me at a particular place in life.” The fret-fingering father of three recalled first meeting Buddy Guy when he was just 18. As Lang describes it, the two developed a unique student/teacher type relationship that continues to this day.
“Buddy is one of the greatest. I’ve been so fortunate to be able to spend so much time with him. We wind up doing a bunch of shows together every year, sometimes actual touring and sometimes just here and there dates,” said Lang. “As a guitar player, you can’t watch him and not learn. I’ve learned so much from Buddy over the years and even after all this time, I’m still learning new things as I watch him. It’s like going to school when you are on stage with Buddy Guy!”
Lang may be among the chosen few blues fans and music scribes herald as “the future of the blues,” but he told of nearly taking a completely different path. “Like every young kid, I wanted to be a rock star when I first picked up a guitar (at age 13),” said Lang, who then hoped to be the next Kurt Cobain. “I was a huge fan of the grunge scene when I was a kid. I really loved Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam.”
So imagine his disappointment when Lang finally got a guitar in his hands and the first thing guitar instructor Ted Larsen handed him was an Albert King album to take home. The disappointment soon turned to adulation as Lang embraced King and his trademark Gibson Flying V guitar, which soon after drove him to discover the other two Kings of the blues, B.B. and Freddie. Impressed with his quick learning student’s newfound hunger for the blues, Larsen invited Lang – who by now sported a bluesy nickname “Kid Lang” – to join his own group, Big Bang.
At 16, less than three years after he picked up a guitar for the first time, Lang landed a record deal with A&M Records. His reputation grew while touring behind his first album, “Lie To Me,” which landed him as a special guest on shows by the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Aerosmith, Blues Traveler, and Buddy Guy. It was at such a gig, Guy first took notice of the young man’s six-string skills. “Buddy is without a doubt my biggest influence,” said Lang, who clearly appreciates the elder bluesman’s close friendship over the years. Guy voiced concerns for the music he has championed for more than 50 years in his recent book, “When I Left Home: My Story.”
Guy seems worried his style of old school blues could be lost once he and BB King finally get on the bus bound for that big bluesfest in the sky to play alongside Albert Collins, Albert and Freddie King, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and all the other legends who have passed through the pearly gates of blues heaven.
Without saying so, Lang clearly takes to heart his prominent role as a torch-bearer for the proud musical legacy that has been handed down to him and a few select others of his generation to protect and nurture.
Despite being a teenage prodigy, giving a Command Performance for President Bill Clinton in 1998, earning a Grammy Award nomination that same year for his third studio album (“Wander This World”),” and a scoring a Grammy win in 2007 with his fifth and most recent solo studio album (“Turn Around”), Lang remains a humble caretaker of the blues.
He clearly is honored to carry on the tradition of the iconic bluesmen who came before and laid the foundation bricks of the blues he loves, using mortar mixed with their blood, sweat and tears.
Though he is among the last in line of the surviving old school blues pioneers, Buddy Guy should put his worries to rest, for thanks to this Lang kid from Fargo and his Fender Telecaster Thinline guitar, the blues seem to be in very good hands for at least another generation.
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