Jimmie Vaughan's got the blues -- and everything else a man could ask for
The last time Jimmie Vaughan sat down with the Chronicle at Iron Works Barbecue, a violent thunderstorm erupted. No sooner had the food arrived than the thunder rolled out and boom, boom! Out went the lights.
That downtown blackout was seven years ago, hot on the heels of the guitarist's first solo album, Strange Pleasure. Since that time, Vaughan has been through almost as many life changes as the previous five years, when he left the Fabulous Thunderbirds, got sober, and his brother Stevie was killed in a 1990 helicopter crash just before the debut of their one and only joint recording, Family Style.
The lightning changes kept coming after Strange Pleasure. His marriage of more than 25 years ended in divorce and was followed up by a new girlfriend named Robin, who takes an active part overseeing his Web site and who is likely responsible for the misty romance of his new album, Do You Get the Blues?
Meanwhile, Vaughan expresses renewed pride in his grown children, daughter Tina and especially son Tyrone, a local guitarist with whom he collaborates on Blues. It was an experience he agrees "could possibly" lead to a second-generation Family Style recording. Then there are the cars he loves to build and race, and guitars he loves collecting.
The notion of a homebody family guy doesn't quite jibe with the image of a multi-platinum guitarist, but here is Jimmie Vaughan talking about his down time, when the guitar is out of his hands: "I go to car shows two or three times a year. Do stuff with the kids. You can't get up early enough to do all there is in life. Clean your house, wash the car, go to the cleaners."
That said, the guitar is not out of his hands often or for very long. In fact, his may be the best job in the world. Winning awards, selling millions of albums, reaping critical adulation, and playing all-star sets with every possible living legend is The Dream Come True.
After years of toiling the blues in Austin clubs, Vaughan rode the rocket to success in the mid-Eighties with the Fabulous Thunderbirds' monster hits "Tuff Enuff" and "Powerful Stuff." Family Style, his first album after leaving the T-Birds, won a Grammy. The critically successful Strange Pleasure was followed by 1998's Out There and his latest, Do You Get the Blues?
That's a mighty success story for the son of an itinerant oil field worker who moved his family for the jobs until settling in the Dallas suburb of Oak Cliff. It was there, during a convalescence, that Jimmie discovered his natural affinity for guitar in his early teens. Soon after, he was playing Beatles and the Rolling Stones songs with an area cover band called the Chessmen, using the money to buy B. B. King records.
Vaughan even did a stint as "Freddie King Jr.," playing the Texas guitar hero's hits on the chitlin circuit for an audience surprised to see a white boy "playing like Freddie King but unable to sing any of the songs." In his later teens, he joined Texas Storm in Dallas, which became the Storm in Austin. When Storm split, Vaughan re-emerged in 1975 with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Antone's was born, and the promise of the blues was wild and free.
"It was maybe the first time Muddy Waters came to Antone's, and the Thunderbirds were opening," he recalls. "We knew our way around Louisiana and Chicago, musically speaking, and we wanted to play good stuff, but we didn't want to play his stuff -- not in front of him. In the old Antone's, you could see upstairs to the dressing room overlooking the stage. We got to one song. I forget which it was, but I did the Earl Hooker slide thing."
Vaughan demonstrates in air guitar, leaning back on the patio bench overlooking Waller Creek. "Dyeer nyeer nyeer nyeer" he sings.
"I saw the dressing room curtain upstairs pull back and it was like, 'Gulp.' The next night Muddy came down and walked behind the stage and grabbed me around the neck. He liked it! Later that night he told me, 'When I'm not here, I want you to do that. Show people how I did that.'"
That moment was a rite of passage for Vaughan. It wasn't his intention to get into music for that purpose -- meeting girls and playing blues were their own pleasures -- but he says, "I never thought I'd actually meet Muddy. I had his records, but meeting him was as far away as the moon.
"It's still that way," he continues. "I get onstage with Eric [Clapton] or B. B. [King], and I am terrified. You couldn't drive a nail in my ass with a sledgehammer. Don't repeat that, it won't come off very good. But there's kind of a natural protection while doing it onstage, and later that night when you go home, it's like, 'Damn, I just played with B. B. King!'"
Yes, Jimmie Vaughan plays the blues. He doesn't noodle around with pop or rock & roll or feel the need to add a country song to prove his versatility. He just sticks with finger-poppin', hip-swayin' blues rhythms purveyed by his fat, iron-fisted playing. There's no post-teen angst or lingering adolescent trauma to his music, no political statements or philosophical underpinnings. It's music about love and women and men and life being tough sometimes. Ask him what his music is all about and he'll tell you it's All-American. Do you get the blues?
The best job in the world comes with one of the worst responsibilities imaginable: Vaughan is executor of his brother's estate, a job he didn't want and "didn't ask for." Jimmie Vaughan's identity is, to much of the non-Texas world, based on being Stevie Ray Vaughan's brother. As an insider confided, "No matter where Jimmie steps off the stage, someone's there saying, 'Hey man, I loved your brother!'"
His Brother's Keeper
Jimmie loved his brother too, but it's more reflected light that Stevie casts over Jimmie rather than a shadow. Stevie's memory is a golden glow colored by legend and time; Jimmie shines with a blue-white clarity. A query about those legal duties elicits a growl.
"I'm just kind of a watchdog, to make sure they didn't do like Hendrix and Hank Williams -- put out a bunch of crap just because it was the time of year to put out another Stevie record," he says. "It's been a battle, but I think it's been all right."
This past June, in the Vaughan brothers' hometown, the weekly Dallas Observer acidly commented on the new Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble Live at Montreux 1982 & 1985, writing that the only unreleased material left "is a double-disc collection of his entire funeral -- with a limited edition third disc featuring the sound of the grave diggers pitching dirt atop his casket... Vaughan always wanted to be Jimi Hendrix (the king of posthumous releases), and in death, he's finally found a way."
Vaughan bristles at such assessments.
"I haven't read what the Dallas Observer said, but all these records that Stevie recorded have been bootlegged 50 times," he notes. "There's hundreds of bootlegged CDs of his stacked to the ceiling. Why should I feel badly when people who want this stuff put out two live albums that have never been released officially? Why should I feel bad because some stupid rag in Dallas doesn't like it? What do they know about me or Stevie? People don't like it if ya do something, people don't like it if ya don't do something."
He continues: "I did the first two or three Stevie records that first came out because I felt that was [right]. I went through everything and that was stuff that had never been put out legitimately. So I tried to help with that, but I haven't had much to do with it since then. Except like I said, all that stuff is bootlegged, five, six times. And there's truckloads of that stuff."
Vaughan shrugs with frustration.
"What is wrong with keeping his catalog current? Why does everyone have to put this evil spin on it? Of course the record company wants to make money. It's what they do! All record companies want to make money. It always kinda gets me."
"Kinda gets me" is an understatement. As Jimmie Vaughan talks, his hands are clenched on the brick-red picnic table, fingers squeezed and knuckles white. They are broad hands, guitarist's hands, and they are opening and pressing closed anxiously. Those hands once played side by side with his brother, and now they sign legal documents for his music.
"Of course it's hard on me," Vaughan says. "Of course it's sensitive. Every time the label puts something out on Stevie, there's somebody going, 'Here we go.' They like to say stuff like [grave robbing]. I have done everything in my power to keep that Jimi Hendrix stuff from happening, 'cause I loved my brother, and I didn't want anyone to do that to him.
"When you lose somebody you love, you want to put that somewhere, keep it close but get on with your life. But it's in my face every day. People loved Stevie, and they loved his music and so did I. So it's a good thing.
"You know, I played all this time and I'm still playing. I'm working on my career and playing guitar. I didn't ask for that job. It just came to me. What would you do? Say no? No, you fight. That's what I did, and I still get shit for it."
Lou Ann Barton, looking illegally lanky and fit, is walking on high heels through the tour bus parked outside the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., on a cool, foggy Wednesday night. With a waggle of her slim fingers, she teases the curtains of the 12 bunks lining the center section.
A Low-Key Affair
"Guess which one is mine!"
The one with the leopard-print pillowcase?
Lou Ann Barton is a most enigmatic performer. Clean, sober, and more than a decade without a new release, she continues to perform with one of the most distinctive voices and images around, something that doesn't escape Vaughan. Vaughan doesn't choose his players to fill slots; the player has to match the sound in his head. Barton's presence balances Vaughan's smoldering sensuality with her own smoky pipes and seductive appearance.
"Everybody tells me, 'Hey, get you some girl singers' and I'm like, 'You don't get it -- get outta here,'" explains Vaughan. "But Lou Ann is Lou Ann. She's so totally Lou Ann. The idea was to have her sing and for me to do duets with her. When you hear 'Power of Love' on the radio, it makes the rest sound like shit. Maybe that's just me talkin' about my record, but that stuff works on the radio."
Vaughan is rightfully proud of his latest, self-produced effort. He likes that the cover art resembles a classic Blue Note album jacket. Even the title came under auspice.
"I dreamed the title," he avers. "I didn't want to name it after a song on the record. There wasn't really one song that worked. I went to bed one night, and I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, 'Do you have the blues?' I went, 'That's it' and wrote it down, but the art director got it wrong and put it as Do You Get the Blues? I thought, 'That's even better!'"
Like its predecessors, Do You Get The Blues? is a low-key affair. With only a handful of obscure covers, Vaughan wrote or co-wrote most of the tunes with ex-Austinite Greg Sain, though one of the standouts, "The Deep End," is co-written with former Storm vocalist/current KUT DJ Paul Ray. The arrangements are simple and elegant, as if an organ combo was plunked down to play dirty blues in a Gulf Coast roadhouse.
Blues is also notable for guests like Roscoe Beck, James Cotton, son Tyrone Vaughan, flautist Herman Green, and Double Trouble's Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon, and delivers everything that pool of talent promises. And Vaughan is right: His music works on the radio. Not that it gets played there. It's a classic artistic struggle with the airwaves that, local stations excepted, Vaughan says still exists today. Will probably always exist.
"Even with the T-Birds, every time I'd put out a record, radio would be different," he says. "They told us before we put out the first record, they told us, 'You can't be a blues band -- nobody's gonna sign you. Why in the hell would you want to do this anyway?'
"I still hear that, they still say that. If they told me it was really good and they liked it, I'd think, 'What are you trying to do? Is this a trick?' I want people to like my music, but I have to like it too."
That's why Vaughan stays true to the sound in his head. He likes it simple and clean, modeling his bands musically on those organ combos of the Fifties and early Sixties and keeping a healthy dose of instrumentals in his sets because his early heroes did. He'd prefer to play, but likes singing.
"Sometimes I sing all right, sometimes I'm terrible," he confesses. "What I mean is, playing guitar is just natural. Done it since I was 13."
In fact, Jimmie Vaughan's voice is as soulful as it can be. Because he didn't sing for most of his career -- neither did he smoke -- his voice isn't ravaged by time or abuse, nor plagued by nodes as he enters his prime. Still, he's in front of a microphone because, "I had to learn to sing or go home."
Singing also liberated Vaughan from the guitar player's curse: Look good, play loud, don't sing. It empowered him as a frontman and added to his showmanship, especially when he chose backup male singers for a sound "like the 5 Royales." Even the presence of Lou Ann Barton doesn't compromise that baritone sound. When Vaughan's crooning onstage with Greg Sain and Charlie Whittington, and Lou Ann backing him, it's a mellow, heavenly chorus.
Blues was also the perfect opportunity to reassemble a powerhouse touring band, including Billy Pittman, whose ultra-cool guitar complements Vaughan's playing like cream in coffee. Drummer George Rains, a master of the Texas shuffle, has accompanied Vaughan's solo bands since Strange Pleasure.
The band is also distinguished by lack of electric bass, filled instead with the full, swelling resonance of Bill Willis' Hammond B-3 organ. Vaughan likes to boast that the man who has played alongside Freddie King and Bill Doggett is "like having a church choir in the band." Amen to that.
Inside the Stone Pony, onetime Austinites the Keller Brothers finish their opening slot with earnest blues. It's a respectable crowd of largely working-class Jerseyites, nowhere near sold out, but certainly enthusiastic. It's so working-class that the most rural honky-tonk angels in Texas could match the Jersey girls here for big hair and white-trash chic. The low ceiling leads from the front entrance and merchandise bar through the stage area and to a back bar, where it's not hard to picture an up-and-coming Bruce Springsteen or a hungry Jon Bon Jovi anxiously waiting to take the stage.
Jimmie and the Kid
Jimmie Vaughan strides through the stage door from the bus like the hero at sundown in Dodge. He looks the part of the Texas guitar-slinger tonight, dressed in black and armed with a sunburst Stratocaster on a conch guitar strap, his hair gleaming. His boots are ebony and polished, with silver tips and heels sparkling as he strolls to center stage and greets the cheers with a brilliant smile. He shoots a glance over his shoulder to Bill Willis and then to George Rains, who guns "Dirty Girl" with a rimshot.
Naturally, the set highlights Do You Get the Blues? plus many standard Vaughan crowd-pleasers. There's the rolling "Out of the Shadows" and the belly-rubbin' "Robbin' Me Blind," layered between a slinky "Kinky Woman" and smooth "Like a King" from previous albums. Included is a tip of the beaver hat to his brother in both "Texas Flood" and a rearranged "Six Strings Down." Sleek and sassy, Lou Ann Barton joins him for "In the Middle of the Night" and show-stopping "Power of Love."
The front of every Jimmie Vaughan audience lures the women, who naturally attract the men. There are two or three blues hawks watching every note Vaughan plays, every change of key, every finger movement, but he'll show them that "Earl Hooker slide thing" anyway on "The Deep End," because Muddy said so.
Then there's the Kid. There's one in every town these days, maybe every club, clutching his guitar and usually accompanied by a determined parent. They're 11, 12, 13 -- any age thereabouts. They have the licks down and looks perfected, but like a shiny mirror, it's a flat reflection. Tonight, that kid is Randy Preston, wearing the too-big T-shirt and bowl haircut as his father lurks in the shadows. "RandyPreston.com!" the kid parrots, like a little wind-up monkey minus the clacking cymbals.
Wedged up front between the blues hawks, Randy doesn't take his eyes off Vaughan or his guitar during the set, and it's obvious what's going to happen: He will end up onstage before the night is over. Sure enough, he's got Jimmie's guitar in the finale of "D/FW," showboating in his best Stevie Wayne Hendrix mode because that's what he's been prompted to do.
"Gimme back my guitar," Vaughan barks on the tour bus afterward, joking as he recounts the moment. Vaughan knows all about the Randy Prestons of the world.
"They do a couple of blues albums and then go pop. Give me a break."
Vaughan's not being heartless; he's got a talented son himself to champion in Tyrone, and his support is paternal and steady. But with Do You Get the Blues?, Vaughan also reminds listeners that rhythm & blues is adult music. It's not for sissies, and it's not for kids. And his musical success is such that countless bands ape the Fabulous Thunderbirds when they should be listening to Guitar Slim. More to the point, Jimmie Vaughan was once 14 with a guitar in his hand.
"Now I know how B. B. King feels," he grins.
Picking over a plate of barbecue back at the Iron Works, Jimmie Vaughan reflects on the times we live in. September 11 was the date of his record release party and in-store appearance, both canceled even before the World Trade Center collapsed "out of respect," but also because of an innate sense of duty.
That sense had him performing for George W. Bush's presidential campaign last year, and he refuses to be cowed by criticism of it. If there's anything more All-American to Vaughan than loving music, cars, and girls, it's the right to speak out.
"Listen, if the governor called you up and said, 'I need you to put on a show,' would you say, 'Hell, no! Fuck you!'? For a couple days I thought, 'Well, I don't know if I should do it or not.' I've never been political. I don't like musicians or actors telling me what I'm supposed to think. Barbra Streisand can kiss my ass."
Vaughan recalls with personal pride that he and Stevie played at the elder Bush's inaugural ball in 1988 and that the experience was "amazing." Still, he concedes that supporting the younger Bush last year "wasn't a very popular thing to do, and I shouldn't say this, but can you imagine if Gore was president with what's going on right now?
"I'm not a Republican. I'm not a Democrat, either. If I'm anything, I am Libertarian. Yes, I believe in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That's what I believe in. The rest of it is a bunch of horseshit. All that politically correct stuff is just political bullshit.
"All the events [since September 11] have made me think. My father fought in World War II. I love this country. The life I've had, I've lived my dreams and make art. That's what I do, and I get to do it for a living. Partly because I chose it and pursued it, but also because of that Bill of Rights. I love this country. I love this town."
A town Vaughan and his band returned to after their East Coast dates, took a week off in, and then departed from for a West Coast tour to promote Do You Get The Blues? There's probably a Grammy nomination in the album's future, and doubtless a few showcases, festival gigs, and European dates to follow. The album is already garnering critical acclaim and that adds to the luster of the hometown guitar hero's star. That and the good life are what some would call lucky.
"I'm not 'lucky,'" swears Vaughan. "I worked hard at it. But I'm 50 years old, and it's better than ever. I'm totally happy. I play guitar every day. That's what I do. I have the greatest job in the world. I never tire of it."