The Christian music press is making a big noise over one Jonny Lang. Jonny is a hotshot blues guitarist. He made his first album (Lie to Me) when he was fifteen years old. And it’s a good album, too, featuring blistering guitar runs and Jonnny’s voice, which sounds like he’s fifteen going on fifty, and which has that whiskey-and-cigarettes quality that one hopes is merely a good imitation, at least at that age. So Jonny, now at the ripe old age of 24, has made a new album (Turn Around), where he sings about his love for Jesus. And various Christian magazines are falling all over themselves about what a wondrous and new thing this is – Christian blues. And they are proclaiming this as Jonny’s greatest triumph.
It’s a tendency I’ve seen far too frequently. I remember similarly ecstatic responses for the debut “Christian” albums of Richie Furay (Poco, Souther, Hillman, Furay Band), B. J. Thomas, and, of course, Bob Dylan. The quality of the music is almost an afterthought, and the primary message that is communicated is "Hey look, we got ourselves a legitimate musician from the big, bad, pagan world, and now he gets to engage in 'loss' and 'cross' and 'grace' and 'face' rhymes.” Whoopee.
It's truly unfortunate when the Christian music press takes this approach. For the, umm, record, I think it's great that Jonny Lang knows Jesus. I really do. But his music still needs to be evaluated on its own merits. Just as a footnote, Jonny was singing about Jesus on his previous album, too (Long Time Coming). And you know what? It was a lousy album, and that had nothing to do with the subject matter. It had to do with the cheesy '80s arena rock production, an over-reliance on Pro Tools, and banal lyrics. When will the Christian music press start to understand this?
And just as another footnote, the Christian music press has got it all wrong if they thing Jonny is breaking new ground with this Blues for Jesus thing. Ed Raetzloff did it back in the seventies. So did Resurrection Band/Rez Band/Rez, and "Broken Promises" is still the best "Christian" blues I've ever heard. And moving outside the CCM world, I'll take Blind Willie Johnson over any of them, and he was recording his great gospel blues songs back in 1927.
To quote Larry Norman, "There ain't nothin' wrong with playin' blues licks." He wrote that in 1972, forty-five years after Blind Willie. And it's still true. So God bless Jonny Lang. But please, I think I may have a coronary if I read too many hyperbolic comments about Jonny's breathtakingly innovative approach.