The Secret to Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon's Success
It was as if he was looking at life through tinted sunglasses, as if everything had been repainted black. That's how Double Trouble bassist Tommy Shannon remembers the months after Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash following an August 1990 performance in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin.
For the first few weeks, Shannon barely left the house. He says that what he saw out the window -- birds, trees, cars -- looked like they resented being there. The few times he left the house for the corner store, when somebody said "Hello," it took everything he had to return the greeting.
Shannon's closest friend, Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton, wasn't coping any better. Although the rhythm duo clung to each other for comfort, there are periods during the 18 months following Vaughan's death that Layton can't remember; he chalks up the blackouts to post-traumatic stress. Shannon says he rarely thought about Double Trouble's future, mostly because he didn't think they had one.
"When Stevie died, I remember believing we'd drop immediately into obscurity," he says. "I figured I'd always be bumming around town trying to scrape together little gigs here and there. I thought it was over. Life was no longer about the goals and dreams I wanted to fulfill, but about survival. That's a terrible feeling."
Just over 10 years later, Shannon and Layton have not only survived, they've thrived. They're still best friends, still bandmates, still clean and sober. Still identified as Double Trouble, they've also hardly been scraping for gigs. Their first two post-Vaughan bands, the Arc Angels and Storyville, rarely played in Austin to anything but sold-out crowds.
Then, last month, an Austin City Limits taping and accompanying Austin Music Hall all-star extravaganza became 2001's first hot ticket. Billed as "Double Trouble & Friends," both shows offered a who's who of modern blues: Jimmie Vaughan, Susan Tedeschi, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Johnson, and Arc Angels Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton. Along with Willie Nelson and Dr. John, all the aforementioned names guest on Double Trouble's debut, Been a Long Time, an album on which Shannon and Layton had a hand in writing half of the tracks.
Some may ask what a rhythm section is doing making solo albums. Truth is, as fruitful as the last decade has been for them, neither Layton or Shannon could be accused of cashing in on Vaughan's legacy. Not that they couldn't; both still reap the financial rewards of SRV album sales and merchandising.
Yet aside from the 38-second snippet of a previously unreleased Vaughan performance that ends Been a Long Time, and opening last month's mini-tour with "Crossfire," both the new album and live performances have been tastefully repositioned away from SRV nostalgia. Considering Vaughan's posthumous impact on not just modern blues, but guitar playing in general, it's been like walking the tightrope.
Nevertheless, somehow, Shannon and Layton have become history on four legs -- without becoming a nostalgia act. Even as the bulk of the interviews for Been a Long Time will doubtless use Double Trouble to get a firsthand, albeit belated, chance to write about Vaughan's legacy, Layton says he's not overly concerned.
"I never have a problem talking about Stevie," he says, "because my time with him was the greatest part of my life. I wouldn't say, 'Let's get done talking about him so we can get into discussing what we're doing now.'
"The fact of the matter is, what we're doing now has a lot to do with things we brought from that experience. God knows most of the people on this record, and us included, learned a lot from Stevie. Without Stevie Ray Vaughan, there wouldn't be a Double Trouble. And there certainly wouldn't be a Double Trouble record."
Shannon and Layton are clear on one thing: Been a Long Time may be star-studded, but it was never plug 'n' play. Certainly Vaughan is the common link between the album's performers, but Shannon says the songs were written or chosen with people they had a bond with in mind. Both know that if they had asked Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, or Buddy Guy -- musicians they know from playing with Vaughan -- to record an album with Double Trouble before now, it would have looked like a cash-in.
"It wouldn't have just looked like a cash-in attempt, it would have been one," states Shannon. "I'd rather put my head in hot oil than make a record like that."
At the same time, Shannon is not opposed to thinking of the new album as an offering to Vaughan's memory.
"In a way, everything I do or come up with is a tribute to Stevie," he says. "I love Stevie so deeply, it's all a gift to him. I always wonder, ever since his death, what would Stevie think about this? Some things I know he'd be really happy about. But Chris and I have also gotten into a couple recording sessions where we found out we shouldn't have been there, and I've thought, 'Oh no, what would Stevie think of this?'
"It doesn't dictate what I do, but it's hanging there. He's still such a part of my life."
It's easy to believe Layton and Shannon have always been together. While they share a bond like childhood friends, they're not. Layton first laid eyes on Shannon in 1980, backstage at Houston nightspot Fitzgerald's. Since 1978, Double Trouble had been Layton and bassist Jack Newhouse; the drummer had come to Vaughan after stints with Dan Del Santo and Greezy Wheels.
Shannon had played with Vaughan while with Krackerjack in the early Seventies, but he saw something different when he poked his head into Fitzgerald's. To hear Shannon tell it, he saw a light that spoke to him: "You have to be in this band."
Shannon and Layton remember what happened next slightly differently. Shannon says he sat in with Double Trouble a few times before meeting Layton backstage; Layton condenses the story into a single gig. Both agree that Shannon was remarkably direct in telling Vaughan he belonged in his band. This before helping himself to the deli tray and spitting broccoli all over Vaughan's shiny suit.
"He'd apparently taken some pain pills after some dental work," laughs Layton. "When he spit it into Stevie's lap, I thought, 'What's the deal with him? How wild.' I thought, 'If you're trying to make a good impression on an old friend, you're not going about it the best way.'
"But I liked how direct he was," he affirms. "Tommy can be very forceful if he's heading toward something he really wants. I looked at him and saw this great energy about him."
For his part, Shannon was more than a little embarrassed.
"I remember going home that night thinking I'd blown it," he says.
Understandably, Vaughan was initially hesitant about asking Shannon to sign on. Shannon had baggage -- lots of it. The bassist had a solid reputation for his work with Johnny Winter, playing not only Woodstock, but also with B.B. King, Freddie King, and Little Richard. Then he bottomed out hard. Shannon had been shooting crystal meth, and by 1971, a drug conviction led to seven years of prisons, mental institutions, halfway houses, and work camps.
Shannon says his reputation was so bad that not even other habitual drug users would hang out with him, let alone let him play in their bands. After a stint as a bricklayer, he'd been reduced to posting "Bass Player Available" ads on the bulletin board at Ray Hennig's Heart of Texas Music.
Vaughan's reservations were natural. Layton says Vaughan had already been using drugs, and wasn't sure the band needed someone with Shannon's sordid past. But road manager Cutter Brandenburg, the same guy who convinced Vaughan to use his middle name and don that famous hat, insisted Shannon was indeed the perfect choice. After Vaughan extended the invitation by phone, Layton drove to Houston on Jan. 2, 1981, to pick up his new bandmate.
While Layton and Shannon say playing together was immediately better than any of their previous rhythm section pairings, their offstage relationship, with each other and with Vaughan, was more complex. For one thing, Shannon and Vaughan shared a deep interest in both spirituality and drugs. For years the pair requested adjacent hotel rooms so they could keep the connecting door open and roam back and forth.
"Chris was the guy that got up in the morning to get things done," Shannon says, "while Stevie and I were dreamers. We were into all these far-out ideas that didn't make sense to most people. Hell, a lot of it doesn't make sense to me now. But we talked about everything. I don't think there was anything Stevie didn't know about me, and vice versa."
"Stevie was a quiet person, a deep thinker," explains Layton. "I was more high-strung, and that didn't always wear well with him. But he always knew I cared about him. That was a big part of our relationship; we all knew we cared for each other and that whatever personality quirks or differences we had, when the chips were down, we could count on each other."
Clearly, drugs, and eventually rehabilitation, strengthened Shannon and Vaughan's bond. Layton wasn't clean, but he wasn't a habitual substance abuser either.
"I partied real hard with them," he admits. "The pattern was that after the show, I'd do a bunch of blow or drink a bunch of whiskey and stay up till three or four in the morning and then drag ass to the next state. We'd do what we needed to make the show happen the next night. But at some point, Stevie and Tommy were fucked up all day long. It was different for me, but it wasn't like, 'Gee, these guys are fucking with my gym schedule.'"
Ultimately, Layton and Shannon grew as tight as Shannon and Vaughan. Yet neither can pinpoint exactly when they became so tight, so committed to playing almost exclusively with one another.
"I liked him immediately, but it's like any friend you've had 20 years," Layton says. "How tight were you three years after you met? Not as tight as you'd be now."
If Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble was a tight-knit unit in which everyone knew someone was covering their back, Storyville was the flip side of the coin. In 1993, Shannon and Layton worked separately on Malford Milligan's solo album Bluest Eyes, but while the local soulman had been using the name Storyville for the project, he didn't have a band. Layton assembled one for him.
Storyville combined Double Trouble with a pair of once-and-forever Booze Weasels, guitarists David Holt and David Grissom. In the four years that followed, the band made a pair of albums for Atlantic and toured constantly. Locally, there were hailed as the ideal Austin supergroup and garnered heavy KLBJ airplay, packed houses, and armloads of Austin Music Awards.
Unfortunately, Storyville never translated what they had in Austin to anywhere else; on the road, they often played to crowds of 30-40 people. While a lack of commercial success is always frustrating, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that the band's internal relationships were tenuous from the start.
"I remember thinking things would change, but they never did." admits Shannon. "Sometimes when you put a band together, it doesn't work at first, but given time, things pull together. It became apparent after a while this wasn't one of those bands."
"As five people, we never jelled," Layton concurs. "We were constantly dancing at arm's length."
The death knell wound up being a lawsuit, thus far unreported. Touring to support Dog Years, Storyville's second LP, their equipment truck wound up in an accident involving a young girl in Corpus Christi. In the lawsuit that followed, the band discovered they weren't adequately covered by insurance; although none of the band members had been driving, the lack of an umbrella policy meant the band would be responsible if a civil court ruled against them. While they dutifully began contributing the bulk of the proceeds from their shows to a settlement fund, Shannon and Layton agree the whole situation only further divided the band.
"Combined with the records we weren't selling and the tours that weren't making money, it meant the end," offers Layton. "By the time they accepted our settlement offer, our spirits were broken. We could have made another record, but not with any kind of spiritual vitality or enthusiasm."
After nixing the idea of turning Storyville into a part-time gig that played Austin-area shows every few months, the band pulled together a series of final shows across Texas specifically designed to pay off their debts. For Shannon and Layton, this sort of "Farewell Tour" was a familiar proposition -- the Arc Angels had paid off creditors the same way. Only with the Arc Angels, parting was hardly sweet relief. For Layton, the Arc Angels were the "band that was, but also the band that could have but didn't."
As the Arc Angels, Double Trouble, Charlie Sexton, and Doyle Bramhall II had all the hallmarks of a supergroup: raging egos, serious drug abuse, terrible communication, and unfulfilled promise. They also had instant chemistry; it was the rare group that sounded better than the sum of its parts. Their first and only album, 1992's self-titled Geffen release, sold a respectable 380,000 copies and earned them an armful of Austin Music Awards, including Best Band three years running (1992-94), as well as a pair of Letterman appearances.
More interesting was the fact that the band was founded in the shadow of tragedy, just three months after Vaughan's death. Although Layton was the catalyst for putting the Arc Angels together, neither he nor Shannon had played more than a handful of pickup gigs after Vaughan's passing.
The re-emergence started with local guitarist/ songwriter Bill Carter pulling Layton out of the house for a gig at Pearl's, and although the drummer literally cried behind the kit, he found playing therapeutic. Meanwhile, Shannon sat in for a few Blue Mondays at Antone's.
"It did me a lot of good to play, it's always pulled me out of the darkness," Shannon says. "At the same time, it hurt real bad because Stevie wasn't there. For a long time, everything was a letdown because compared to Stevie, even a real good situation seemed mediocre."
From the start, Sexton and Bramhall had reservations about making the Arc Angels anything more than four guys that jammed occasionally, mostly because both were beginning work on solo albums. After their first gig, however, a last-minute slot opening for Robert Cray at the Austin Opera House, local demand for another gig -- as well as instant major-label interest -- made both reconsider their positions.
In the Chronicle's 1999 oral history of the Arc Angels ("Living in a Dream," Vol. 18, No. 37), Shannon says falling into a band with so much chemistry so quickly literally saved his life.
"I'd never say, 'We or I saved his life,' but that's kind of how it felt to me -- that it was important," Charlie Sexton said. "I had to say, 'Okay, that 1% about fronting the band, put yourself out of it and think about other people.' Chris and Tommy were good to me when I was young, and not everybody was."
As good as their intentions may have been, the Arc Angels suffered from the familiar problem of too many cooks. Still, it wasn't infighting, but rather Bramhall's heroin use, that ultimately prevented the band from recording a second album -- an album David Geffen himself predicted would be multiplatinum. Bramhall's creative and emotional withdrawal was obviously frustrating for Sexton, but for Layton and Shannon, being back in a band with a drug-addicted frontman was especially painful.
"We'd gone through so much hell not to be there, and there we were back in it again," says Layton. "We just hoped it didn't kill him."
Shannon says that once he realized Bramhall was hooked, he knew the band was over. Even though he sees the Arc Angels as an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that passed them by, today he says the overall experience was invaluable.
"When it ended, I wasn't afraid anymore," he reveals. "Sometime during that period, I found something within myself ... it's like I developed another kind of faith. In the recovery program Stevie and I were in, one thing that's required is faith. I thought I had plenty of faith until he died. It crumbled and it took a while to dig through the ashes and find what I was looking for. After the Arc Angels, I didn't know what was going to happen, but for some reason I knew I'd be okay."
Shannon believes starting to write music again was invaluable to his recovery. Starting in bands at 14, he wrote music and considered finding the right arrangement or the perfect bridge just as expressive as writing lyrics. But he stopped as soon as he got out of high school (and began using drugs), and didn't start again until just before Storyville's split.
Of the day he began writing again, Shannon says it was totally spontaneous; he'd been watching television when he was delivered melodies and an almost supernatural directive to go into the other room and record them. With a mini-cassette recorder, boom box, and beat-up acoustic guitar, he began writing material that now anchors Been a Long Time.
"That period when I started writing again was the happiest time of my life," he says. "It was like being reborn. I felt like a 14-year-old again, and still do to some degree."
In truth, Shannon and Layton have always brought more to their bands than just bass and drums. Layton says that even though Storyville was fragmented, it was also creatively open enough to make him think that perhaps he and Shannon could proceed with an album of their own material. After all, fans had been wanting one for years.
Early on, Shannon and Layton agreed that the only way they'd be able to record an album without interference from a label hoping to cash in on their Vaughan connection was to go it alone. By funding it themselves, they could control the material, the guests, and the overall direction. In 1998, they brought Sexton on as the project's producer, and began calling around inquiring if certain guests they had in mind were available.
"To have almost everybody we asked say they'd do it was amazing," says Layton. "Part of me wouldn't have been surprised if we called around and nobody could make it. And before we knew it, we were halfway there. We were like, 'Shit. We didn't call so-and-so.'"
Even so, the guest list is impressive. Better yet, the album is thoroughly cohesive, even if a pair of highlights are obvious: the Arc Angels reunion ("Turn Towards the Mirror") and the closing "Baby There's No One Like You," featuring Dr. John and Willie Nelson. Equally compelling is "In the Middle of the Night," a track pairing Lou Ann Barton and Jimmie Vaughan.
What's interesting, of course, is that the song could help dispel rumors that the relationship between Double Trouble and the elder Vaughan brother has been, to put it charitably, awkward. Layton prefers to call it complex.
"We spent so much time with his brother," he says. "I can't help but think every time he sees me or Tommy it serves to remind him of Stevie. And that doesn't make it good or bad, just complex."
In fact, the sword cuts both ways. Shannon and Layton say it's often something as simple as a particular facial expression from Jimmie that reminds them of Stevie.
"I see certain things in him I saw in Stevie, because they're brothers," explains Shannon. "It's like, 'Damn. There's a part of Stevie standing right there.'"
While Double Trouble admit there's some off-stage eggshell-walking around Jimmie, their playing with him is natural and fluid, unlike playing with any other guitarist.
"He's such a different guitar player to begin with," remarks Layton. "He has such perfect rhythmic timing there's almost no relationship between playing with him and anyone else."
In turn, several of the younger guitarists on Been a Long Time and at last month's shows report that playing with Double Trouble is unlike playing with any other rhythm section.
"To me, they're the guys I cut my teeth on," says Jonny Lang. "I listened to them so much for so long and lived with them on my stereo, playing with them is like playing along with them on my records. It trips me out, because it brings back the instincts I built from first listening to them. It feels so natural playing with them, because I've done it so many times sitting at home with my Stevie records."
Susan Tedeschi, who had Double Trouble back her on tour last year, says that it's even simpler than so many young guitarists growing up listening to Vaughan.
"They're so natural together that whoever plays with them feels natural, too," she says. "And they're simply down-to-earth good people. They never make you feel uncomfortable, awkward, or young."
Returning the compliment, Layton says their work with Tedeschi made them reconsider their interest in sideman work. While the duo is still opposed to simply being sent money, music, and plane tickets, they say they had so much fun on the road with Tedeschi that it opened them up to the idea of similar stints. Still, the duo admits that the ideal follow-up to Been a Long Time would be finding and forming another band.
"We know it's not going to be easy, because it's like a marriage," posits Shannon. "And it's not [that] there's a shortage of great musicians. It's finding the right people."
"We have to find people we can groove with on as many levels as possible," says Layton, "whether it's playing, songwriting, or how you do business. Admittedly, that's difficult when you're older and more set in your ways, but you also know more about what it takes to make a great band. It makes the long list short immediately, not because we can or can't pick, but because we know what will or won't work."
Since they don't have a touring band as such, Layton and Shannon are unsure how they'll promote their album outside of Austin City Limits and dozens of interviews. What they do know, with absolute certainty, is that Double Trouble will stay intact. There's really only one opportunity that could tear Shannon and Layton apart, and it's already come and gone.
In 1994, Shannon was asked to audition for the Rolling Stones. Layton admits he didn't want to lose his partner (and jokes about designing a Charlie Watts voodoo doll), but in fact he gave Shannon one of Stevie's leather hats to bring to New York as a good-luck charm.
"I got to play all the hits with them," Shannon says of his two-hour audition. "I took a big chance with them. If I had gone in and flopped, I'd have to live with that for the rest of my life. But I did really good. They're the Rolling Stones -- they don't have to be nice and keep you around two hours. I remember leaving believing I got the gig."
Although Shannon was ultimately not selected, he knew the position it put Layton in: "If I got the gig he wouldn't have a partner, but I also knew he'd be happy for me ... But make no mistake, I was ready to go."
If it sounds like Shannon is gleefully sticking it to his friend some six years later, he is. They're that close. Both say one of the keys to their relationship is an odd sense of humor they can't quite explain in words -- that, and the inability to hold a grudge against each other.
"He's probably the only friend I have where we can sit there and get into a fight without any long-term problem," Shannon says. "We've had some serious, angry fights. But what's unique is that we're not fighting to see who wins. It's more like we have to settle it. And if I'm wrong, because it's Chris, it's easy to say I'm wrong. And for him too. And we both know there's nothing wrong with arguments or disagreements if you're both working toward a solution. It's healthy."
"Tommy's the greatest get-along guy that there ever was," says Layton. "He's so easy-going. He's got that Zen thing about him. Between us, he's definitely the calmer person."
If the 10 long years following Stevie Ray Vaughan's death prove anything, it's that together, Double Trouble are nothing if not resilient. For a couple of guys who thought they'd never work again, they've created, managed, and endured some pretty spectacular successes and failures.
"I think the biggest thing we have in common is not wanting to be ordinary," muses Shannon. "Neither of us will settle for mediocrity. We both have the same drive toward improving ourselves. Not just a drive for success ... everyone wants that. But we don't want to rest on our laurels.
"We want to keep moving. I see so many musicians that don't give a damn. After so many years, something switches off for them and it's like a job they go to. That will never happen to Chris and I. We get these ideas or visions and really go to work on them. And then we stick together on them. That's been our secret."