I've spent too many years doing the impossible 

It’s been close to 5 years since Richard Leo Johnson decided he’d had enough.

The celebrated musician – who’s drawn deserved comparisons to such iconic guitarists as Jimi Hendrix, Leo Kottke and John McLaughlin – had found that sometimes, the thing you love most can wind up as a damn heavy albatross.

“To tell you the truth, man, I was just burned out,” he now recalls with a still-weary tone in his voice.

“Being on the road, playing most every night, you start to realize that you’ve gotten caught up in some kind of ‘dog and pony show,’ and before you know it, your music starts to suffer. I didn’t want to fall into that trap.”

Not that the average person (or even diehard guitar nut) would have likely been able to tell if Johnson was off his game.

The intense, complex and labyrinthine compositions he’s known for – and which had earned him a highly coveted slot on the famed Blue Note jazz label’s artist roster – are by their very nature such head-spinning displays of polyrhythmic dexterity and brainiac timekeeping that it’s hard to even keep up with what Johnson’s frantic fingers are doing, let alone scope out a minor slip here or there.

But, one can sense it’s not technical lapses he was worried about. It was a loss of inspiration, or worse yet, of self.

“The bottom line is that I know plenty of people in the music business who hate what they do,” he continues. “That ‘dog and pony show’ thing I was talkin’ about – well, I used to go see them when they were passionate about their craft. Now it’s basically the same thing over and over again every night. Why would you want to get to the point where you hate the very thing that you love so much? It ceases to be art, and it winds up just being a commodity.”

Wary of following that same path himself, Johnson says he began to fret (no pun intended), and wound up giving himself what he terms a slight nervous breakdown. For anyone who’s ever witnessed a concert or recital by Richard Leo, it’s not hard to imagine the type of tension and anxiety that leads to such stressful situations being corked up inside this restless, mercurial artist.

Despite his extremely laid-back demeanor and slight Southern drawl – he is a man obviously haunted in no small way by his own prodigious abilities as a musician, and by an innate need to excel at anything he chooses to do.

And so, he retreated a bit. He stayed closer to home, spent more time on his architectural photography business, and took on a few young guitar students who were eager to test their own musical boundaries. Johnson says that in some respects, it was the best thing that could have happened to him as an artist.

He also became choosier about what sorts of gigs were worth the headache and downer vibe of travel (which he says drains him of creative impulses).

“You know, you hear about all these musicians who write material out on the road – but honestly, when I was touring, I’d hardly ever compose in my hotel room. All my songs have always been worked out in the solitude of my own house.”

“And, I’d done so many interviews over the years. Hundreds, you know? And you have to talk about yourself all the time, and promote yourself, and I was just sick to death of that, so I said I’m gettin’ off the road! Once I did that, it started the process of me trying to remember – and understand – what it was I loved about playing guitar in the first place.”

That love affair dates back to when a pre-teen Johnson first became intrigued with the instrument which is now his stock-in-trade. Growing up in Arkansas, he was exposed to blues, rockabilly and country music of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but although he absorbed much of these genres by osmosis, he had little interest in aping those styles, or taking the traditional route of playing popular tunes.

However, in an odd turn of events, he is now following up his last, rather avant-garde album (the internationally praised Poetry of Appliance by The Richard Leo Johnson Trio) with a stripped-down disc of introspective, Americana-based solo compositions written and performed on nothing save a vintage 1930s National Duolian resonator dobro.

The Legend of Vernon McAlister was recorded by Johnson himself at home in his “small, windowless attic.” It’s a crepuscular, swampy collection of mesmerizing guitar music that immediately brings to mind the great Daniel Lanois’ ambient-inspired pedal steel showcases. (Which is ironic, since Lanois approached Johnson years ago after a New Orleans gig to offer his legendary recording studio’s services.)

As if that weren’t enough of a departure for a man known for playing postmodern jazz and trance music on custom-made dual-necked electric guitars with many more than 12 strings – he’s also written an elaborate and convoluted backstory to explain the creative shift, and with it, at least 2 imaginary characters – one of whom he now plans to embody onstage in a series of live shows that will mix his idiosyncratic guitarwork with storytelling and dramatic interpretation.

They say the devil is in the details, and the details of this undertaking would take another half-page to simply catalog. Those who care (or dare) to wade through on their own can find plenty of clues online at www.vernonmcalister.com – but the easiest way to describe what Johnson’s up to is as follows: A neighbor of his gave him an old battered dobro, and in the course of exploring the rare instrument’s attributes, he noticed the name “Vernon McAlister” crudely carved into the metallic body of the 70-year-old steel guitar.

As Johnson’s intrigue with the history of this well-worn instrument increased, so did his devotion for the sounds he could coax out of its resonant body and antiquated fretboard.

He also became entranced with the sounds it coaxed out of him.

“I’ve been collecting old, cheap guitars for a while now. I have like 12 of ‘em that I’ve found – mostly on eBay. I even bought an old concertina to mess around with. They all have a very limited tonality. But each one is extremely singular. By limiting myself to the opportunities afforded by these odd instruments, I’m forced to play in a way that is not typical for me. I’m not using all my standard 2-handed techniques, yet the way these guitars operate – and what they bring out in me – I’m loving it.

“I’ll take this for what it is. If it makes me think and play like this, then I don’t care what the limitations are. I mean, some of the things I’m coming up with these days sound like psychedelic country and western!”

Johnson says that while he only writes instrumental material, that doesn’t mean his songs don’t have narrative meanings – even if they may not always be easily discerned by his listeners.

“This is a very autobiographical CD. The specifics are different, but the impetus was totally based on my own experiences growing up. The character of Charlie Shoe (the “mildly autistic” self-taught guitar prodigy with the photographic memory who features prominently in both the genesis of this album and Johnson’s soon-to-be-released next effort) that I’m adopting for these shows... the way Charlie sounds is the way I learned to play the guitar as a kid, with tangible melody lines and a slower pace. It’s more about songcraft.

“That’s why I’m not so concerned about whether or not people can wrap their heads around the notion of this fictional story. It all comes from the same place. It’s based on real historical facts, Memphis music, the rockabilly world.”

Johnson does admit that at times, the long months of hard work he’s put into developing what is essentially a bemusing one-act stage show and original score have left him feeling like “the kid in Rushmore who puts on all those stupid plays,” but says he’s relishing this new, combined form of expression.

“In a way, it’s like the Theatre of The Absurd, ok? I’m adopting a character so that I can pursue and perform songs that represent my own personal history of American music – from the area where I was raised.

“So, in pulling away and creating something based in fictional mythology it gives me a great opportunity. People have no expectations of Charlie. He doesn’t even exist! He becomes a vehicle for a level of honesty that in some cases you can’t find because ego gets in the way.

“See, I’m not interested in what I can do, but what the music can do. I know it’s a bit of a Dada trip – but what winds up being the case with these songs is that someone had to write them. Someone had to perform them, and go through the effort of recording them. That’s me by default because I’m the only one who knows how to play the guitar like this.”

Johnson says the process has already been so freeing and inspirational for him that he’s planning a series of themed albums – each based around a single instrument, and featuring a new, fictional character drawn in part from his own life.

“The point of this recording is not about virtuosity, but content and concept,” he confides. “I have spent too many years having the reputation as the axe-slinger doing the ‘impossible thing’ on the guitar. It was time to think and feel my way for a change.”

Richard Leo Johnson celebrates the release of The Legend of Vernon McAlister by appearing in the guise of “Charlie Shoe” at The Sentient Bean, Saturday at 8 pm. Suggested donation is $5 for ALL AGES, and advance copies of his new CD will be available for sale.


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Jim Reed

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