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May 2006

Richard Leo Johnson
The Legend of Vernon McAlister
Cuneiform Records

Though he had previously played acoustic guitar, when a friend presented him with a 1930s National Duolian steel-bodied model, Richard Leo Johnson took an immediate shine to its surprising playability and fascinating colors. Particularly intriguing was the name “Vernon McAlister,” crudely etched into the steel body. It fired Johnson’s imagination, and he spun a tale of a Tennessee man who teaches himself to play a strange, sweet, unruly music that none of his friends and family understand. The album is Johnson’s musical document of the legend, and it’s a stunner.

Johnson gets an incredible variety of colors from the Duolian: Whistleable tunes (at least if you can whistle in quarter-tones) and fleet arpeggios sit next to moody yet captivating textures conjured from sustained, eerie whines, metallic grinds and buzzy plucks of the strings. You can hear jazz, blues, folk and classical at times, but the lasting impression is how meaningful and heartfelt every note sounds; this is endless invention in the service of a private yet compelling beauty. And the album traces both Johnson’s story and McAlister’s progressively iconoclastic bent, giving it a compelling arc—once you press play, you listen closely to see how this tale plays out. Legends aren’t often freshly minted, but Vernon McAlister may well be one of those.

Originally published in May 2006
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