Richard Leo Johnson’s Mythical Conceptions

Richard Leo Johnson’s obsession with the owner of a 1930s National Duolian steel guitar is the inspiration behind his fascinating new CD, The Legend of Vernon McAlister. After a neighbor gave him the guitar inscribed with the album’s namesake, Johnson undertook a comprehensive search to locate any information about the man. The detective work proved fruitless, but left him motivated to write a mythical tale in music and words about McAlister—who he imagined to be an eccentric, nomadic solo guitarist.

“The less I knew about McAlister, the more intriguing he became,” explains Johnson. “I came up with the idea of the myth, and I decided to create accompanying music exclusively on the Duolian in a totally spontaneous manner. I would start by tuning the guitar to an unfamiliar tuning and begin improvising. All the while, I was thinking about how anything I was playing might fit into a sonic story line that could define moods, transitions in a person’s life, and the various emotional aspects of the human condition in an interesting way. I captured everything on a cassette recorder, and, at the end, I had 17 tapes of raw material to sift through in order to create the final recordings.”

A key part of the creative journey involved using myriad techniques to coax unique sounds out of the Duolian, which he often used as background textures.

“If I was speaking on the phone, or something dropped on the floor, or a dog barked, the instrument would respond with really interesting frequencies,” says Johnson. “That encouraged me to experiment. I pounded on the guitar with a wooden mallet. I used an EBow. I scratched the instrument with spoons, knives, and fingernails. I put a wooden dowel under the strings at the fifth fret, and I scratched up and down on the dowel with a cello bow—which made a really frightening sound. I loosened the strings to the point where they were rattling, and I even blew air across the strings to elicit wind-like sounds.”

Johnson also encouraged fresh musical ideas by retreating from his usual thumbpicking-based approach to play exclusively with his fingers.

“I wanted to get away from my crazy fast stuff and overall familiarity with the instrument,” he says. “I wanted to relearn it to a certain extent by approaching it with a diminishing level of technique. I thought this guitar had something special to say, so I wanted to leave myself open to whatever that might be.”