Luck seemed to smile on Vernon McAlister during the early 1930's. His life seemed immune to the ravages of the Great Depression. Through the decade he worked in an East Tennessee sawmill, supporting a wife and two children. He was well thought of in his community for his fairness, honesty and work ethic. He was active in church. Quite well respected, in fact, for a man in his early thirties.
Ten years into his sawmill career luck turned a blind eye. A big chunk of wood flew from the saw. Stuck in the head Vernon collapsed senseless. His coworkers crowded around but could not revive him. A doctor was summoned. Taken first to his home, Vernon remained unconscious Vernon had been severely injured, the doctor said.
He was taken to the Johnson City hospital for x-rays and further examination. The city doctors agreed Vernon had a severe concussion, a skull fracture and was in a mild coma. They judged his chances of some recovery as high. However, Vernon’s family was warned he might never fully recover. He was returned to his family's care.
Vernon opened his eyes and spoke after three days. He seemed fine but distant and strangely detached. Sometimes he would look out the window in the middle of a conversation. Then he would appear he had completely forgotten anyone was talking to him.
After some examination and a trip back to the Johnson City hospital the doctors declared Vernon was on the road to recovery. He might even be able to return to work in several weeks, they asserted, quickly qualifying that he might have to stick to light work for a time.
Vernon went outside for the first time a week after his injury. He walked out with a smile on his face. He stopped three times. Once he examined a flower. Twice he watched and listened to song birds. He was happy a full of an almost childish wonder. His wife and brother both thought of one doctor’s stark warning “Vernon might not be the same again."
Back on his feet, Vernon seemed a bit lost. He would drift in and out of conversations. He would go out into the garden and then find himself in the nearby woods without a clue about how he had gotten there. When asked he admitted to hearing a ringing in his ears. He would slur his speech, but only sometimes. His family worried about Vernon as the days passed.
Making music could cure Vernon suggested Uncle Milt, who played fiddle with a bluegrass group. The man actually believed making music would cure anything but Vernon’s wife’s family quickly warmed to the suggestion. Just happened Milt knew the location of a “fine guitar,” one of his acquaintances had for sale.
After a little haggling Vernon’s wife and sister-in-law bought the guitar from a skinny man who lived in a rooming house in Johnson City. The man kept talking about Nashville. The guitar cost $10. The two women had never seen a guitar like the one they had just purchased.
The two women proudly presented the guitar to Vernon. He looked it over, picked it up and plucked a few strings. He smiled. For a few minutes he explored the guitar with his finger. He thanked his wife and her sister. Vernon, a product of a musical background, had never seen such a guitar.
First off, the hollow body was all steel. Where most guitars had a hole in the middle, this one had what looked like a perforated metal plate. Finally, the guitar was loud. What Vernon had was a National Stringed Instrument Company Duolian. Although the bottom of the National line, the Duolian was part of a family of loud, rugged guitars built for performers. Initially the marketers targeted Hawaiian and jazz musicians. However, the steel resonator guitar found its greatest acceptance among Black blues performers playing tent shows and juke joints.
Vernon didn’t know that much about the guitar or about playing it. He got a book. Mostly he just fooled around, making noises that over time became music. Happy to see Vernon doing something, his family encouraged him and began to praise his efforts.
Vernon and the Guitar
Vernon was delighted with the guitar. It opened up a whole new world of sounds. He realized he could make music. He wrote songs from the noises he could coax out of the guitar. His wife, glad he was doing something with his time, praised his musical efforts. In private she remarked on Vernon’s “dying cow in a tin barn,” guitar style.
Oblivious to the growing strangeness of his music and the insincerity of his fans, Vernon lost himself in the guitar. He learned new tunings and chords. Then he changed them. His best moments playing the guitar seemed to be in the woods on the bank of the creek behind the house.
At first Vernon’s often awkward music cleared the creek bank. There squirrels and mocking birds began to linger in the trees, if only to argue back in their own voices at the strange new sounds. After two months he had become a part of life on the creek bank, ignored by or sometimes fascinating its many citizens.
The music improved dramatically on the creek bank. Milt gave him some pointers. Vernon launched into an adventure. He tried to discover just what kind of noises the guitar would make. He learned to do things with the sturdy steel guitar that made the most of its design. Milt swore that in two months Vernon had created a whole new approach to playing the guitar. Vernon’s songs were stark and almost graceless yet always pierced by a melodious ray of sunlight delighting in a dance of harmonies.
Back to Work
The more time Vernon spent with the guitar, the happier he became. After three months his honeymoon with the guitar came to an end. The doctor said Vernon was ready to go back to work so “So long as he doesn’t act like he thinks he’s a mule.” Vernon did not want to work. He was in love with a guitar. His wife, his family and his good character herded him back to the sawmill.
Vernon tried to be cheerful and cooperative at work, just as he always had. He tried to be interested in the lives of his wife and children, just as he always had, As the months passed it became increasingly clear to his wife that her husband had lost his heart to the guitar. He played it every chance he got. He sat in the yard and played after work. After supper he’d sit on the porch and play into the evening. The guitar was so loud the familiar porch swing conversations came to a halt.
Listening to the radio, reading more books and drawing on the wisdom of Uncle Milt, Veron continued to grow as a guitar player. His style remained peculiar. Milt said he could release “angels and wild animals from the guitar.”
During the day, Vernon went through the motions. It became increasingly clear neither his mind nor his heart were in the sawmill business any more. He would have lapses where he seemed to forget where he was and his coworkers began to fear he would be injured again or even killed. He was moved to an office job.
The Road to Hell
Even as Vernon’s music grew to fulfill the potential of its oddly compelling style, he tempered his initial experiments with a constant ear to radio music. His family found this almost as disturbing as his guitar playing. Still, they managed to praise his efforts and at least humor his obsession with music.
Over the next three years Vernon grew closer to his guitar as he unconsciously distanced himself from his family. He played the guitar. He listened to the radio. He talked to his family, and other willing listeners, about the new songs he was writing. He was constantly excited by his music even as he further lost touch with other aspects of his life. He gradually quit going to church in favor of Sunday morning guitar playing he called “my worship.” He would sit by the creek when the weather was good and make up “hymns” expressing the way he felt toward God and the world that morning. Winter and bad weather took the ritual inside.
Vernon became an alien in his own home. There were vague hints of “Devil worship” based on no greater evidence than the Sunday music he saw as his personal tribute to his Creator. Vernon missed all the grumbling. Nothing seemed to matter anymore but the guitar and his songs. He would write a new song almost every day. The songs weren’t generally popular but Milt continued to back Vernon’s efforts. “That boy can do things with a steel guitar most people can’t even imagine”.
Side Trip to Fame
Vernon began to fall victim to pride. He was excited by the heights he had achieved with his guitar playing and wanted to share. A few people were deeply impressed but most were mildly annoyed because Vernon’s music wasn’t like anything they'd ever heard. It was wild music, moving from swelling orchestral sounds to dissonant warblings and back again. His melodies were barely perceptible and his harmonies odd. The difference with Vernon was that since nobody ever really taught him to play the guitar he’d made up some crucial elements like how to tune it and how to pick it.
Milt was Vernon’s biggest fan although he was beginning to drink a bit in the mornings and nap in the afternoons. One afternoon when he’d forgotten to nap he decided he should show Vernon off to some musicians he knew. They were a fairly famous group and just that weekend would be appearing in Johnson City. Milt made some calls and got it set up that Vernon could meet the band after the show.
That weekend found most of the extended McAlister family packed in Vernon’s Model A Ford on the way to Johnson City. Vernon was proud as punch. Milt couldn’t stop talking about music. The rest of the passengers were overwhelmed with silent anxiety if not outright fear Vernon was about to deeply embarrass them.
The bluegrass players had had a jam session planned in a church basement after the show. Vernon sat through the two hours of picking with his guitar, ready for his big moment. He felt no fear. As they listened to the professional pickers and combined the familiar bluegrass sounds with Vernon’s “songs” they became more and more horrified. Milt was having a great time.
When folks had gathered for the jam Milt used his influence to get Vernon to be the first musician to play with the band. Vernon, who had never played with anyone before, just sat right down and started playing one of his songs. Vernon played as hard as he could and the steel resonator guitar made a wave of sound that filled the low-ceilinged basement. Vernon shut his eyes and played. The bass player and the banjo played stormed outside. The guitar player just stared at him. After a few minutes the fiddle player started occasionally coaxing long plaintive sounds out the fiddle with the bow.
Vernon played five songs before Milt finally got him to stop because a lot of the audience had either walked out or was getting ready to go. The guitar player grabbed Vernon by the shoulders and told him he’d never known “a guitar could do that.” Vernon seemed to glow. He listened to the music for a while then walked outside with his guitar to find his family. His wife was sitting in the front seat of the car weeping and wouldn’t talk to him.
On the Road
Surprised his wife was crying, Vernon asked her why.
“You’ve embarrassed me and your whole family with that horrible stuff you call music,” she shrieked. “You’ve nearly driven us out of our home and now we won’t be able to even look at people any more.”
Vernon was shocked. He’d always seen his family as supportive. The looks on the faces of his other kin made him realize they agreed with his wife. Vernon made a decision. He had destroyed his family and sullied their honor. His elation at the praise he received from the guitar player turned into the deepest, darkest gloom. Guitar in hand, he walked off into the darkness. He was never seen in those parts again.
Vernon’s wife waited for him for awhile, then after seven years she got a divorce for abandonment. A free woman, she married Milt and got him to finally settle down on a small bottomland farm. They never could talk about Vernon without arguing.
The Legend Begins
Vernon never came back to that part of East Tennessee. From time to time stories filtered back. Milt collected them. The stories revolved around a tousle-haired, clean-shaven man with a National guitar. The man hardly spoke but he was always willing to play. Often he played in the woods from spring through fall, changing songs with the seasons. A farmer’s wife in Arkansas was reported as saying the man had stayed on a creek bank near her farm for several months and she took him food. He played songs “for angels to sing to,” she said.
For two decades and more Vernon traveled the country with his guitar. He rode the rods. Stayed in hobo camps. Slept in the woods. But always he played the guitar. From time to time he would do odd jobs for food, money or a chance to sleep in a barn. He headed west till he ran into the Great Plains and then doubled back into the hills of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri. He avoided cities.
The stories became more outlandish. A man near Mena, Arkansas said he’d watched Vernon playing one afternoon down in a holler and a possum walked up and died. Vernon had started a fire and cooked the possum, the witness reported.
A prominent British folklorist, Sir Alan Issac, tracked down Vernon in the early 1960's, almost thirty years after he had left Johnson City with only a guitar. Vernon was living in a rooming house in Van Buren, Arkansas, in failing health. Eager to capture the sounds of the strange guitar player whom he had only heard of, he hurried to the boarding house with a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
Vernon was receptive and played a couple of dozen wordless songs that stretched the limits of the instrument. The astonished folklorist felt himself overwhelmed by the music that filled the little room and drove Vernon’s neighbors to pounding on their walls.
The next morning the collector played the tape for his wife. The first song began with a orchestral crescendo and stopped. After that there was nothing but tape hiss. The man rushed back over the mountains to Van Buren, only to discover Vernon had disappeared. He was not seen again.
A few years later there were rumors, never substantiated, that Vernon was living on a dairy farm in the Pacific Northwest.
Written by Jess Henderson