Jonny Lang was going to be the next Stevie Ray Vaughan.
At least that’s what many people expected when he blasted onto the national scene with his major-label debut album, “Lie to Me,” in 1997. Just 16 at the time, the multitalented guitarist/singer looked like the artist to revitalize the blues genre and bring that music to the mainstream rock audience.
But as Lang, now 35, moved forward with his career, it looked as if he was never going to be simply a blues or blues-rock artist.
His current album, “Fight for Your Soul,” makes this abundantly clear. There aren’t many hints of blues, and the songs aren’t even that centered around Lang’s guitar playing. Instead, it spans pop, rock, Motown and contemporary R&B.
Lang knows he may have disappointed fans of his blues-oriented early music, and he appreciates their feelings.
“I certainly know, because I look at it from my point of view. The artists that I love, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and different folks, when I think of the stuff that I love of theirs, you know, there’s a little bit of a … knee-jerk reaction to want to see them reproduce that stuff that I love,” he said. “So I totally get it.”
The reality is Lang couldn’t have stuck to the blues and been honest – not to mention satisfied – with his music.
“I guess who I am musically keeps changing because it’s like if I go into something and go ‘OK, there are people who want more guitar solos, so let’s do more guitar solos and write the songs around that,’ it will just fail,” he said. “I just can’t do that. And what I mean by fail, I just won’t like it. I won’t be happy. So I just never really know what the album is going to turn out like (ahead of time). … Whatever comes out at that moment is the right thing. And I’ve been really fortunate to not have, over the years, too much pressure on me creatively from labels and other folks.”
Early on, there would have been plenty of reason for a record company to push Lang to stick to his blues-rock beginnings.
“Lie to Me” was a platinum-selling success, and in 1998 Lang returned with another blues-rooted effort, “Wander This World,” which earned him his first Grammy nomination. But after releasing those albums in quick succession, Lang went five years before releasing his third album, “Long Time Coming,” in 2003.
By then, he was a changed man on several levels.
During the whirlwind of his first two albums, he had gotten into drinking and drugs and was leading a life of rock-and-roll excess. But Lang got control over his indulgences and turned his life around during the five-year gap that preceded the release of “Long Time Coming.” In 2001, he married actress Haylie Johnson, and they now have four children with a fifth on the way in May. That period also saw him kick drinking and drugs and discover Christianity.
Musically, “Long Time Coming” hinted that there was much more to Lang than the blues. Several songs, including “Second Guessing” and “I Am,” showed that Lang had a talent for soul, Motown, funk and even pop.
Lang has continued to broaden his stylistic horizons. His 2006 album, “Turn Around,” added some gospel to its mix of rock and soul – and won a Grammy for best gospel album.
Then with 2013’s “Fight For Your Soul,” he went wider still. There’s the funky rocking stomp of “Blew Up (The House),” the melodic and rocking R&B of “We Are the Same,” the percolating soul/R&B of “What You’re Looking For,” the sweet Motown-ish sound of “River” and delicate pop balladry on “All of a Sudden.”
In the early stages of studio album No. 6, Lang has a sense of where the music may be heading.
“With this one I did have in mind that, if anything, I’d maybe like it to be, I don’t know, a little bit more just guitar-centered than the last couple of records, and that might not mean more guitar solos, but maybe more based on riffs, more guitar riff-oriented. So we’ll see what happens with that.”
For now, there are shows to play, including Monday’s appearance at the Crest Theatre in downtown Sacramento. He has put a few new wrinkles into his set for his concerts.
“We worked up, I think, five or so different songs from kind of what we were doing last season,” Lang said. “It’s still a mix of old and new stuff, but just a few different songs.”