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The Legend of Vernon McAlister

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Album Review

Although he has been most often compared to guitarists like Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges, the guitarist Richard Leo Johnson most resembles on The Legend of Vernon McAlister, his second album for Cuneiform Records, is John Fahey, and like Fahey, he takes on a persona here in crafting this tightly knit cycle of guitar pieces. The entire sequence was recorded in Johnson's attic studio in Savannah, GA, on a 1930s single resonator National Steel guitar. The guitar had been the gift from a friend, and when Johnson examined it, he found the name Vernon McAlister etched into the steel. Failing to find out any real information about Vernon McAlister, Johnson created his own mythic biography for the man, then adopted that imagined persona (much as Fahey became Blind Joe Death) and began writing the cycle presented here. The result is a wonderfully hushed and delicate universe that manages to be beautiful, eerie, ominous, soothing, and startling by turns, as Johnson overdubs light percussive taps and chiming notes into the mix, along with weeping, whining tonal washes of E-Bow and gently applied tape effects. Everything here is of a piece, forming an insular and unified suite, but tracks like the opener, "Morning Glory," with its quietly joyful tone, the extremely brief and ominous "Quarter-Tone Soldiers Marching on the Mill," the dark, gliding "Side Road to Splendor," and the gently expanding (and then shrinking) "More Than All the Stars in the Sky" all generate their own micro-moments while still working within the overall framework of the whole. Imagine sitting at the bottom of a deep and tree-lined Appalachian hollow, a place where the sunlight just barely reaches, and then imagine hearing a strange yet oddly familiar music drifting down to you from the next hollow over, slightly muffled and distorted into echoing fragments and harmonics, and all of it sounding like the work of new age angels (or maybe the ghost of John Fahey). That's what listeners have here. Joe Death would no doubt approve.


Born: 1957 in Arkansas

Genre: New Age

Years Active: '90s, '00s

Richard Leo Johnson is a self-taught guitarist whose unorthodox acoustic style is reminiscent of the late Michael Hedges. While he is often placed in the new age camp, his sonic and rhythmic whirlwinds are often far more intense than that term implies. He claims Leo Kottke, John McLaughlin, and Pete Townshend as influences. Some will also detect strong hints of Larry Coryell, Ralph Towner, and Pat Metheny. Born and raised in Arkansas and residing in Georgia, Johnson was quite successful as an architectural...
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The Legend of Vernon McAlister, Richard Leo Johnson
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