Primary Instrument: Guitar
The Legend of Vernon McAlister, Richard Leo Johnson's newest recording on Cuneiform, is an astonishing and magical release � a sort of acoustic guitar equivalent to the classic Lewis Carroll novel, Alice in Wonderland. Early in the 21st C., Johnson's neighbor in Savannah, GA introduced him to a mildewed National Duolian steel-bodied guitar, dating from the early 1930s. Also called a resonator guitar because its uniquely shaped, steel body self-amplified or resonated sound, the Duolian was a mass-produced, inexpensive, and road-worthy instrument popular among blues, jazz, Hawaiian musicians who worked roadside taverns in the Depression years. Previously, Johnson had used a variety of finely-made, modern guitars � most notably an 18-string, custom made, double-necked McCullum � to express his fleet-fingered, idiosyncratic and highly innovative style. But as soon as he heard the Duolian, and discovered the name Vernon McAlister crudely scratched into its side, Johnson tumbled deep inside the resonator's web, just as Alice had fallen down the rabbit hole. The Legend of Vernon McAlister was born, resulting in an all-instrumental CD that can serve as soundtrack or ‘aural' history to a written tale (readable on vernonmcalister.com). It is perhaps the best and most certainly the most imaginative project that this highly imaginative guitarist has ever done.
Richard Leo Johnson is one of the most innovative and inspired acoustic guitarists on the current American music scene. Amazon.com's editors called Johnson perhaps the next in a short line of guitar greats--a line that includes [Michael] Hedges, Derek Bailey, Pat Metheny, Sonny Sharrock, and a few others, while Playboy touted him as the most innovative guitarist since Jim Hendrix.
A passionate and intuitive player, he is often compared to such masters of the steel-string acoustic guitar as Bruce Cockburn, John Fahey, Michael Hedges, Burt Jansch, Adrian Legg, Leo Kottke, Steve Tibbetts, and Ralph Towner. But Johnson's style, characterized by complexity, exhilarating speed, and hauntingly unfamiliar harmonies created through ‘found' tunings, marks this self-taught player apart from any other musician.
Johnson was raised in America's deep South, in a small Arkansas town in the Mississippi Delta. He began playing guitar at age 9, briefly taking lessons from a hard-drinking oil field worker before deciding he'd learn more on his own. Johnson recalls that his real jumping off point was a cassette he received as a teenager, which featured John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra's Inner Mounting Flame on one side, and Leo Kottke's Greenhouse on the other: Says Johnson: I thought it was one person playing this stuff! The initial impact was that it was somehow possible to make something happen that fused the linear liquidity of McLaughlin and the dense harmonic structure and drive of Kottke. The distinctive playing of Oregon's guitarist, Ralph Towner also impressed Johnson. Practicing incessantly on his own, he developed an idiosyncratic playing style which combined plucking and strumming, alternating between 6, 12, and 18 strings, using all parts of the guitar, and employing 30 tunings he devised. Music remained a private passion while Johnson pursued architectural photography as a profession, receiving an MFA from Louisiana Tech, running his own studio, and creating photos sought by collectors such as D.C.'s Corcoran Museum and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
In 1993, Johnson self-released a CD with percussionist Jud Martindale. Called Creatures of Habit, it caught the attention of Cuneiform's Steven Feigenbaum. Three years later, Johnson's home in the Ozarks burned to the ground. The fire destroyed his entire life's work as a photographer--over 300,000 photo prints and negatives. Devastated by the loss of his art, with his photographic studio and career in ashes, Johnson decided to pursue a music career. He moved to Nashville, began gigging incessantly, and within a year signed to a major label: Capital Records' Blue Note/Metro Blue.
Johnson's first major label CD, a solo work called Fingertip Ship, was released in 1999 on Blue Note's then-sister label, Metro Blue to a staggering amount of critical acclaim. The CD was reviewed in such publications as Down Beat, Jazziz, and Playboy, and sparked feature articles on Johnson in Billboard, Guitar, and Jazz Times. Language, Johnson's 2nd major label release, came out on Blue Note the following year. A departure from his solo CD, it featured guest artists on variety of instruments. Musicians Gregg Bendian, Paul McCandless, Andy Reinhardt, Warren Haynes, Glen Moore, Reggie Washington, Matt Wilson, Cyro Baptista, and James Wormworth had received recordings of Johnson's guitar tracks and were asked to play along. Hearing it, The Washington Post proclaimed that ...you can bet a few jaws will drop. ...There's no way to categorize this music, except maybe by creating new hybrids…but that doesn't matter. To do so would only box in Johnson's enormous talent.
...the most innovative guitarist since Jimi Hendrix. Johnson is a one man guitar orchestra. --Vic Garbarini, Playboy