Going back to the days of fife and drum, Boston has a history of giving the nation great music. The list of legendary bands coming out of Massachusetts could make the British blush.
So, when Boston music fans hear something new and start doing cartwheels, the rest of us might want to take notice.
In this case, New Englanders are smitten with Johnny A., a guitarist who actually makes Salem, Mass., his home, but has been part of the Boston music scene long enough (since the early '80s) to qualify as a native.
His self-released, instrumental-only CD "Sometime Tuesday Morning" sold more than 6,000 copies (impressive for an independent release) and started moving up the regional music charts when guitar legend Stevie Vai decided to offer A. his first real record deal.
Thanks to Vai, the CD is now available nationally on the Favored Nation label and is beginning to catch on in other parts of the country.
"(Stevie Vai) called me on my birthday and left a message," A. said recently in a telephone interview. "When we finally talked on the phone, he had obviously listened to the record and he was going through it track by track."
A particular favorite's of Vai's was "Wichita Lineman," the Jimmy Webb-penned Glen Campbell hit from 1968. Johnny A.'s mellow and melodic arrangement is nothing like Vai's shredder extravaganzas.
"I've been asked, 'What's it like to have a guitar god give you a leg up?'," A. said. "I try not to stereotype people, but you only get to see the face another person puts forth. You can only judge people by what they give you, but I also know Steve Vai is a guitarist of great musical knowledge. It meant a lot to me that the song that blew his mind was 'Wichita Lineman' because I put a lot into that song."
It's been a long time since an instrumental album that put the emphasis on something other than virtuosity moved up the national charts, but Johnny A. would rather play for people who are moved by the pure emotion of melody and rhythm.
"I'm a sucker for good pop songs," he said. "I'm into songwriters. I'm a fan of guitar music, but guitar playing is not a gymnastic event. To me, it's not a competition. There is nothing wrong with that and I go and listen to those players, but for me at this point, I've come full circle. I'm back to a pop sensibility, but with a jazz philosophy and a rock edge."
A.'s pop sensibility is obvious in the songs he choose to cover (surf guitar fans will be mesmerized by his version of "Walk Don't Run"), but it also comes through in the songs he wrote for this CD.
There are eight original numbers on "Sometime Tuesday Morning" and they are some of the best tracks on the CD. On songs like "Oh Yeah," "In the Wind" and "Up in the Attic" A. shows that while he doesn't feel the need to do back flips on his fretboard, he can compete with any guitarist for speed and dexterity.
Johnny A.'s background is mostly as a sideman. He's spent a good deal of the last few years working with Peter Wolf, former frontman of the J. Geils Band. When Wolf decided to stop touring, A. figured it was time to do something for himself.
"As a sideman you're at the whim of the front person, at the whim of their career and what they want," A. said. "I wanted to be in charge of my own career. Not being a good singer, I felt I needed to improve my strength, which is guitar. My voice is my guitar."
With that in mind, A. taught himself to read music and began working up guitar arrangements of his favorite pop songs, such as the Beatles "Yes It Is."
Using a guitar to carry a song without a singer is no easy task, but Johnny A was already familiar with two early masters of the craft, Les Paul and Chet Atkins. Both, said A., have always influenced his playing.
"I don't know how you could be a guitar player and not be influenced by Les Paul and Chet Atkins," A. said.
Like Paul and Atkins, A. has a tone that is sumptuous and alive. Every note rings clear and carries an emotional punch that many revered contemporary jazz players lack. At no point when listening to "Sometime Tuesday Morning" do you miss hearing a singer. A singer would be superfluous.
"There is something that happens when you hear certain songs, and not just with instrumentals, like when you hear 'You've Got to Hide Your Love Away' ... there is something that happens when you hear that song that just transcends the words," A. said. "That's what I'm into. I want to make music for people to listen to.
"I'm at the point in my career that I wanted to make the record I wanted to make," A. added. "I never thought this record would make it past the trunk of my car. I thought that maybe it could be the last record I ever made. And if it was going to be the last record I ever made, I wanted it to be something that I would be proud to leave behind."
It seems Mr. A. scored on that mark.