Fretboard whiz Eric Johnson explores a looser, improvisational style. 

New and Improv

Fleet-fingered guitar stylist Eric Johnson has made his mark on the performing world since his career took off in the mid-'80s. But the soft-spoken Texan keeps a firm hold on the personal star trip.

"It's all a roller coaster," the 46-year-old songwriter said of stardom in a recent phone call from a Kentucky hotel room. "If you buy into that, you get jaded or despondent or use drugs or you buy into the illusion. … At the end of the day it's not that important."

Johnson is certainly correct about the importance of celebrity on the grand scale of things. But that doesn't discount the importance the guitar has played in his life. Growing up in a home where his father played records by Elvis and the Beatles as well as big band recordings of the '40s, Johnson took an interest in the guitar as a teen. He taught himself to play, learning from records by B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix and from the players who surrounded him in the Austin music scene.

At 14, he headed down the professional road playing in a primarily instrumental group. During the next few years, he turned to fusion jazz until he organized his first band in the late '70s. Johnson "just kind of milled around" the Southern club circuit for the next several years supporting himself but not making much headway.

He had encouragement from players such as Steve Morse of Dixie Dregs, but it wasn't until Guitar Player Magazine put him on its cover that he reached a wider audience. A 1984 shot on "Austin City Limits" also brought recognition. He landed a couple of record deals and with 1990's "Ah Via Musicom" found commercial success. He's performed around the world in the ensuing years, and Thursday he brings his award-winning style to Richmond for a show at Mulligan's, sharing the bill with The Derek Trucks Band.

As his performing and product success snowballed, Johnson's recording projects and habits took on their own story. Notoriously careful in the studio and with his equipment, Johnson was known as a perfectionist's perfectionist, scrupulous in every sonic detail.

But recently Johnson says he's made some changes, putting some of that behind him for his latest "Live and Beyond" project with his new band, Alien Love Child. Recorded in three nights at Antone's in Austin, the CD is pure improvisational flight that captures Johnson and the band in free — yet focused — form. He calls the effort a "therapeutic" departure.

"It was taking a new tack," Johnson says, recalling the live recording. "Rather than rehash it [in the studio] until the cows come home … it's kinda pulled me out of being cemented in the studio."

The current string of shows Johnson and Alien Love Child are playing in support of "Live and Beyond" are half "highly improvisational" and half selections from Johnson's past albums. By concentrating on playing the best music rather than stroking a guitar hero's ego, Johnson's art continues to evolve.

"Integrity … quality. That's what [keeps] me going," Johnson says. "The real payoff is just to be able to touch

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