Fancy Fretwork 

Nashville guitarist unleashes distinctive, original collection

Nashville guitarist unleashes distinctive, original collection

Richard Leo Johnson

Fingertip Ship (Metro Blue)

Johnson conducts an acoustic guitar workshop 8 p.m. Apr. 5 at Bongo Java, 2007 Belmont Blvd.

Astonishing speed and agility, coupled with a remarkably individualistic style, make Richard Leo Johnson’s guitar work a compelling, highly delightful listening experience. The 43-year-old Nashville stylist, whose debut LP Fingertip Ship is an early contender for the most unusual release of ’99, plays both 12- and 6-string guitar in a manner that defies easy analysis.

His approach isn’t strictly jazz, blues, folk, or classical, though elements of all these genres crop up in his playing. He doesn’t always follow preset patterns or adhere to predictable harmonic progressions. The creator of over 30 original tunings, he’ll employ them at unexpected times and in frequently unusual (some might say technically wrong) ways. Johnson’s playing will lurch from soft refrains to whirling phrases, from an intense statement to a subtle conclusion. While he cites Leo Kottke and John McLaughlin as influences, there aren’t many moments on Fingertip Ship’s 13 selections that will remind listeners of either. But when Johnson speaks of his fondness for Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, it’s clear he shares their unconventional approach to composition and presentation.

Not only did Johnson write every song on the LP; some, like “Prometheus Meets the Day” and “Glidepath,” are so impressive in their conception and execution that it’s hard to believe they’re the work of a relative newcomer. “Prometheus” moves from a simple rhythmic beginning to a middle section in which Johnson zips across the fretboard before finally ending the song with a roar. “Empitsu No Uta” quotes Eastern motifs, while “Get Funked” is the closest Johnson comes to R&B and pop rhythms; “Synthetic Blues” and “Mother’s Day” reflect a blues/rock sensibility.

Other highlights are the elegant tribute “Tony Bennett,” which offers some of the album’s best melodic moments, and the joyous “Cicada” and “Bluefield,” short songs that show Johnson can also cut loose and have fun.

The guitarist’s vividly original style comes naturally: An Arkansas native, he began playing at age 9 and took only a handful of lessons from a tutor. Disenchanted by his would-be instructor, Johnson decided instead to teach himself, retreating to his room and forging his own technique.

Johnson’s creativity isn’t limited to music, either: Like jazz bassist Milt Hinton, he’s also an excellent photographer. Both the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C., and the New Orleans Museum of Art have exhibited his photographs, and he has also published photos in House & Garden, Southern Living, and Custom Homes. The holder of a master’s degree in visual arts, Johnson experienced a devastating blow when his personal photo collection was destroyed in a 1997 house fire. The collection contained more than 300,000 images he’d amassed over 25 years.

But neither that loss, nor the difficulty of establishing himself in an industry increasingly dominated by trendiness and imitation, have deterred Richard Leo Johnson. Though still essentially unknown by the general audience, he raised a few eyebrows with his ’95 release, Creatures of Habit, which earned favorable notice in national guitar periodicals. Johnson was also voted Best Overall Musician in a Hot Licks contest in Arkansas prior to his relocation to Nashville; he was the only acoustic entrant among the contestants.

The guitarist’s profile has recently been enhanced by a series of opening engagements for banjo ace Bela Fleck and folk singer-songwriter Richard Thompson. He’ll embark on his first solo North American tour this spring. Already, the Blue Note-distributed Fingertip Ship has earned him attention in Billboard, Down Beat, and Guitar Player. Now it’s time for everyone else to find out about this singular musician.

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