Grammy award-winning Jonny Lang is headed back to Arlington as one of the headliners at the Stillaguamish Festival of the River.
The Stillaguamish Tribe’s annual festival is Aug. 12 and 13 at River Meadows County Park. Lang, who played the festival in 2013, will take the stage at 5 p.m. Sunday.
A blues prodigy of the ’90s, Lang, now 36, has been a singer, songwriter and guitarist for more than two decades.
He picked up the guitar when he was 12 after his father took him to see The Bad Medicine Blues Band, one of the few in his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota. He was inspired to play by the band’s guitarist, Ted Larsen.
“It just blew my mind. Especially the sound of the guitar,” Lang said in a phone interview with The Herald while at a tour stop in Ohio. “I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to learn how to do that.’ My dad knew the guitar player, so I was able to take lessons from him.”
Not long after starting guitar lessons, Larsen asked Lang to join the band. He sang and played rhythm guitar. At 13, Lang became the band’s frontman and they renamed themselves Kid Jonny Lang and the Big Bang.
Lang released his first album at 15. Though he was a wunderkind, his singing voice sounded like that of a weathered soul.
His early influences included Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, as well as Motown, Otis Redding and Steely Dan.
“I spent all day, every day with it,” Lang said of the guitar. “I would listen to (and play along with) my favorite guitar players. I would hit pause, and rewind and play again, and try to learn all of their solos in 5-second increments.”
His bluesy sound has evolved over the years into a soulful mix of R&B, funk and rock and then gospel — but his blues-instilled licks appear on every album. His debut record “Smokin’” (1995) was followed by five albums that made Billboard’s top 50 chart — “Lie To Me” (1997), “Wander This World” (1998), “Long Time Coming” (2003) “Turn Around” (2006) and “Fight For My Soul” (2013).
The blues-based “Wander This World” earned him a Grammy nomination, and the gospel-influenced “Turn Around” won Lang a Grammy award.
“I like so many different kinds of music, and am inspired or influenced by so many different kinds of it, it naturally comes out when I try to write songs,” he said. “I try not to to funnel the music that I write into one category or try to make it sound more blues or more rock or whatever. I’ve always just let it take shape the way it wants to.
“Sometimes it can be a little, ‘Whoa, whatchu doin’ way over there?’ But it’s just the way I’ve always done it.”
In more than 20 years on the road, Lang has shared the stage with The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, B.B. King, Keb’ Mo,’ Sting and Buddy Guy.
In 1999, he was invited to play at the White House for President Bill Clinton. Lang also makes a cameo appearance in the 2000 film “Blues Brothers” as a janitor. In 2004, Eric Clapton invited Lang to play at the Crossroads Guitar Festival. He also performs regularly with the Experience Hendrix Tour along with other well-known guitarists in tribute to the late guitar legend.
His seventh record — “Signs” — is set to be released Sept. 8. This album, which features blues, rock and funk elements, is a return to Lang’s blues-guitar beginnings.
“Some songs on there go back to what I started out playing,” he said. “When I was a kid, I was always listening to Motown and soul. That’s really the stuff that I would consider my roots.”
Lang — now married, the father of five and living in Los Angeles — said he has been lucky to have started a career out of singing and playing music at 15, and to still be at it today.
“I’m doing what I love for a living,” Lang said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
From a fan
Lang’s first show was to see The Bad Medicine Blues Band at a Fargo bar in 1993. My first show was to see Lang at a Seattle pier in 2004. It was a high-school graduation present to myself.
It was 13 years ago, but I remember it well. He played all of my favorite songs — including “Get What You Give,” “Irish Angel” and “Red Light” — with his eyes closed tight, his head thrashing as he played his guitar. Sometimes he scat sings with his guitar solos. It’s the coolest thing.
When his fans roared their approval, he replied simply with a sweet North Dakotan “Thank you.”
I’ll be there at River Meadows County Park on Sunday to see him again, my soon-to-be fourth time, because I can’t get enough of that gritty voice and that electric guitar.