Quirky K.D. Lang Steps Out as Country Music's Latest Hit Kicker
07/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT
07/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT
In a world in which entertainers fight to establish an identity, K.D. Lang has, advertently or otherwise, established quite a few. She is, for example, Canada's Leading Androgynous Country Western Singer. She is also the Only Woman to Have Accepted Canada's Juno Award (for Best Country Singer) While Wearing a White Wedding Dress. ("I thought it most appropriate," says Lang, who has a mischievous sense of humor, "but lots of people didn't get it.") Rounding things out, Lang is also the Only Country Singer Who Claims to Be an Incarnation of the Late Great Patsy Cline. "There's an energy I receive from her," Lang says of her unusual relationship with Cline, with whom she communes spiritually. "When I was criticized for what I was saying about Patsy, I consulted her and I got my answer."
Cline's response, says Lang, was a "stamp of approval" for the 26-year-old singer's new Shadowland LP, which has earned equally enthusiastic—and more easily verifiable—reviews from critics and buyers. "Lang sets off explosions on almost every song," wrote Rolling Stone, which gave the LP a four-star rating. Earlier, Lang's in-Cline-ations had received the endorsement of Patsy's mentor, longtime Nashville producer Owen Bradley, 72. After hearing Lang and her band, the Reclines, Bradley offered to help shape Shadowland. "I don't think I've ever worked with anyone more talented," he says. That's high praise from a man who has produced, among others, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells—both of whom joined Lang on the album for a Honky Tonk Angels medley. "Greatness doesn't intimidate," Lang says about her legendary co-stars, who also included Brenda Lee. "Idiots intimidate. Working with great people, you feel honored, humbled and blessed."
If anything intimidated Lang, it was the ghost of Bradley's "lost angel," Cline, known for such classics as "Crazy" and "I Fall to Pieces." Cline died in a plane crash in 1963. Bradley takes Lang's fanaticism with a grain and a grin. "I wouldn't want to make fun of K.D.," he says, "but I'm afraid she had a few of her own ideas about Patsy and I probably destroyed some of them. Your imagination is usually so much better than the real thing."
Whether Lang herself is or isn't the real thing is debated by country music purists. They wonder about a gal who dons a horsehair wig to sing "These Boots Are Made for Walkin' " in concert and performs the "Watch Your Step Polka" while slides of newlyweds dancing through a gymnasium littered with cow pies flash on a screen. "I'm not a stereotypical country singer," says Lang, unnecessarily. "It's time to update country music. We can't deny the fact that we're influenced by punk music, pop music, rock and roll."
Lang must have had huge antennae to pick up those influences in Consort, Alta., the tiny (pop. 650) farm town where she was born Kathy Dawn Lang. The youngest of four children, she says her parents—her mother is a teacher, her father a pharmacist—separated when she was 12. "My father moved," she says. "It wasn't a good split-up."
Eccentricity and showbiz came early to Lang, who began tap dancing and singing in public at 5 and used snuff and wore leather bell-bottoms in sixth grade. After graduation from Alberta's Red Deer College, where she studied painting, she joined a group of performance artists who once staged a 12-hour re-creation of heart surgery. "We took it very seriously," she says.
A 1982 role in a play about Cline led Lang to country music and an ongoing obsession. "Something clicked between Patsy and me," she says. "It enabled me to do country with a sense of humor but also with a great deal of emotion and respect."
Now a Grand Ole Opry and Tonight Show regular—"I guess Johnny likes me," she says—Lang is in the midst of a summerlong concert tour of the U.S. and Europe. Single and living in Vancouver, she confesses to "a very small personal life. Love enters my life once in a while. I have a big phone bill." That may be due to her long-winded raps about "spirituality, which is the No. 1 reason for doing everything," she says. Pal Minnie Pearl describes Lang as "an enigma" and "one of the most vulnerable people I've ever met."
Given that vulnerability—and her humorous bent—Lang has had a little difficulty coping with being taken seriously. She finally learned to accept her fate while taping a Roy Orbison special that aired on Cinemax earlier this year. "I was lookin' at Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello—great people," says Lang, who joined them to sing backup for Orbison. "I was the youngest by 10 years at least. I just laughed and shook my head and went, 'Oh well, here I am.' "
—By Steve Dougherty, with Kristina Johnson in Los Angeles