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The Legend of Vernon McAlister

by Richard Leo Johnson
Cuneiform Records, Silver Spring, MD, 2006
Audio CD, Rune 222, $13.00
Distributor’s website: http://www.cuneiformrecords.com/.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Richard Leo Johnson is a rather well known architectural photographer who turned to guitar playing after his studio burnt down in the Nineties. His two previously published albums were praised mainly for his virtuoso style, combining melodic invention with technical mastery and experiment. Some time ago, a friend presented him with a worn but still playable 1930s National Duolian steel-bodied guitar. The instrument had the name of ‘Vernon McAlister’ etched on it, and Johnson naturally wanted to find out who that was. Nothing. Vernon McAlister never left a trace as a musician, probably like most other players of that type of cheap instrument. The National Duolian was produced by the National Stringed Instrument Company, who sold thousands of it in the Thirties. Because of its big resonator chamber, the instrument has the ‘advantage’ of sounding louder than a regular wooden guitar and first became popular with jazz and ‘Hawaiian’ musicians who didn’t want their part to be drowned in the sound of a band of woodwinds and percussion. Later, it was adopted by the blues community, where it remained popular as a cheap alternative to amplified electrical guitars only to be forgotten as a mainstream instrument after the Second World War.

So, what would you do if you laid hands on a well-preserved steel-bodied guitar with a name and a hidden history? Precisely what an imaginative musician like Richard Leo Johnson has done: dream up a story, create a legend, imagine a music and record an album. The story and the legend are simple, elegant and charming, as you can find out on http://www.vernonmcalister.com. The music is equally charming but not simple at all. Quite the contrary. It comes across as the result of months of exploring the possibilities of the instrument by an uneducated and enthusiastic player, someone who isn’t spoiled by any formal musical training and who has lots of time to find out what kind of sounds he can draw from this loud-mouthed stringed box.

In 20 short tracks, Mr. Johnson explores the whole range of sounds the Duolian can produce, from gently tapped percussion to orchestral chords and from sweet melodic lines to harsh, crying harmonies. The entire record is built like and meant to be heard as a suite of wordless songs where each separate piece serves to emphasise the overall versatility of the music. Much more than being a mere showcase of sound effects, it is a dialogue between musical means and meanings. Each piece shows how the instrument influences the expression and vice versa, and the whole is loosely constructed but closed in on itself, following its own musical logic. Vernon McAlister, wherever he is buried, proves to be truly a legendary master of the steel-bodied National Duolian.




Updated 1st November 2006

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