Because of its location, Nashville did not become a center for jazz or blues, as did Memphis and St. Louis. Instead, the Tennessee hub has become a city known for quite a few things in general and its country-western music theme in particular. Arkansas-born guitarist Richard Leo Johnson, 44, has spent some time in Nashville and recognizes the melting-pot nature of its culture. Bluegrass, folk, Celtic music and continental European elements show up on Language. While Johnson’s debut album last year represented an impressionistic journey across the U.S.A., this one pays homage to America’s musical roots.
With his acoustic guitars out front, Johnson blends various folk idioms in small ensemble format. His most prominent partners, Paul McCandless and Andy Reinhardt, infuse natural timbres alongside Johnson’s acoustic instruments. On a medley of “”Cheek to Cheek” and “Dance in Heaven,” both soprano saxophone and accordion contribute to the acoustic guitar’s dance-like rhythms. After all, much of this music has roots in celebratory dance. In a few instances, Johnson goes off in a different direction. His “Sketches of Miles” introduces Spanish classical guitar to the album. Along with Glen Moore, Warren Haynes and Cyro Baptista, the leader recalls the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration and provides an honorable tribute. Johnson’s “New West Helena Blues” mixes bluegrass with a Mississippi Delta blues mood. The guitarist exhibits virtuosic skill on the double-neck instrument, sounding as if he were several people performing together.
A photography major in college, Johnson has developed an eye for landscape. His willingness to seek unique aural blends to express his visions places the guitarist in the company of today’s brightest stars.