Beacon Blues

Jimmie Vaughan's lifelong song

Beacon Blues
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

The One Knite was an oasis of soul. The room was a little box, sitting at the corner of Red River and Eighth Street. Cut from limestone, it looked as though it had been sitting there forever, one hard rain away from washing into the creek behind it for good. If, by some fluke of nature, 100 people happened to pack in, half of them could have been charged with attempted sodomy, the crowd so thick you couldn't stir them with a stick.

But in 1970, music maniacs haunting Downtown Austin couldn't be choosy. The Vulcan Gas Company on Congress was running on faith, a shell of its former self and soon to die a quiet and unworthy death. Sixth Street was a mix of cold Pearl, funny pills and potent powders, and plenty of cheap thrills. The Triple J and Green Spot covered the basics of country & western and Mexican music, fistfights and switchblades no added charge. And how many cities had a transvestite barbecue joint, six blocks from the state Capitol, with she-males lined up for brisket sandwiches and, hopefully, some afternoon side-street trade? Scottie's turned that trick just fine.

On summer days, thermometer tipping over 100 degrees, Grove drugstore seemed like one last shot at sanity, or maybe a short stroll over to the Greyhound station and a bus ride to anywhere else. The live music capital of the world wasn't even a figment of anyone's brain-addled imagination yet. For true believers, however, the Texas musicians drying up with the hot winds of Lubbock, Dallas, Houston, and even good ol' San Antone, Austin held hope, slightly delusional though it may have been. Something magic inhabited its back alleys.

Of the holy local psych triumvirate – Conqueroo, 13th Floor Elevators, and Shiva's Headband – only the last still swung, but freedom flourished nonetheless. Jimmie Vaughan felt it when he visited from the Big D in the mid-1960s, playing sticky-floor gigs at fraternity houses around the University of Texas and finding his way to Eastside clubs Marie's T Room and Alexander's, places where the blues was a life raft for listeners who sometimes could barely afford air to breathe. Once Vaughan discovered those places, he saw his path forward. In 1969, the teenage guitarist made the move down I-35, not unlike Mississippi bluesmen who took the blues highway from the Delta to Chicago decades earlier in search of a home for the sounds they made. When the music is living inside you, becoming the blood causing the heart to surge and the spirit to smile, there's nothing to be done but chase that love with every breath in your body.

When James Lawrence Vaughan left home at the end of the 1960s, he carved his initials into the back of his best friend: a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. He knew he'd run into some dicey characters out there and thought that if someone made off with the instrument, having his JLV knifed on the back might help him get it back. Practicality comes in all shapes and sizes, and for a guitarist, the No. 1 job is to hold onto an axe. Without that there's nothing, and the young traveler knew it.

Songs From the Big Chair

More than 40 years later, Vaughan released a new album July 6 titled Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites. Which, when you think about it, could be the man's mantra. It's a stunning set of real-life passion, told by veterans with an uncanny way of making things made out of wood and metal tell the truth about life. The people in the studio are conjurers, and while some of it may sound simple, the years and tears it takes to learn to speak this language of love are known to a select few. As singer Lou Ann Barton once said, "There are only two cool people on the planet, and one of them is Jimmie." To get there was a road few start and almost none stick with. When Vaughan left Dallas along with the teasing fame of his band the Chessmen, Austin was the mirage on the horizon.

Vaughan wasn't long in the capital city before assembling some Dallas friends into Storm in 1970. Nowadays it would be called a supergroup: Doyle Bramhall, Paul Ray, Vaughan, Denny Freeman, and a few other in-and-outers. You had to be a private eye to find their shows, but the one drawing Austin's blues fiends was Monday at the One Knite. The stage, if it could be called that, was at the back, and on those blue Mondays, Storm sounded like an answer to years of secret prayers. Bramhall's voice was Ray Charles crossed with Bobby Bland, and he kept the beat like fate. Ray's bass wasted no notes, glued in sync with Bramhall's bass drum.

Freeman's guitar was a study in sonic elegance, mixing jazz and stratospheric blues runs through a set list of classic songs. That left Vaughan, who distilled every superfluous emotion from his style, leaving only the essence of ecstasy in those two hands. Even more, he stood onstage like he absolutely meant it. Any movement was magnified into perfection, and he seemed to be sending silent signals to those lucky enough to tune into that fiery frequency.

From those very first nights in the dark of Red River, there was never any doubt a musical savior had arrived in Austin. It was the way he looked at his audience, like he was carrying a message of hope and that if everyone pulled together surely we could go forth in the light as one. Blues is strange stuff. On the surface, it can be entertainment beyond belief, heating up a room like a blowtorch and driving dancers into erotic acrobatics. Underneath all that, it's religion, and those who fall under its sway almost always do so for life. John Lennon remarked, "Blues is the chair." It's what everything else sits in. From day one, Jimmie Vaughan was the high priest of blues in Austin; he sat in that chair, and though no one could have envisioned it four decades ago, he helped start an influx into the city that continues to this day.

Most foundations are built to be topped off, and so it was with Storm. At one point, the group included a full horn section and looked like it couldn't get any better. It had reached the mountaintop. At a 1972 Democratic fundraiser in Zilker Park, the group was untouchable, its power turned up to 12 and Vaughan playing at a personal peak. Naturally, that's when he walked away, losing interest in an act inches away from breaking through the Lone Star curtain. Like a lot of seers, the guitarist had an eye for the next vista even if he hadn't seen it yet. Blues can be a fickle mistress, and one man's beauty is another man's boredom. This Texan was ready to scoot and decided to strip it all back to nothing: a quartet without an ounce of extra on it. Of course, it would be called the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

The early T-Birds, whether they were called that or not, got tagged as a Chicago blues band because they featured a harp player in the lead. Never mind that half the great Louisiana swamp blues crowd included a Hohner Marine Band harmonica in their front lines or that incomparable Texan Junior Parker also played the Mississippi saxophone. Once Kim Wilson, a traveling man if ever there was one, entered the Austin city limits, he was destined to throw in with Vaughan and turn the Thunderbirds into a household name. It took more than 10 years, but in the world of roots music, that's but a blink of the eye. Vaughan and Wilson quickly became one of the great tag teams to play together, initiating a mission to burn down bandstands around the world. It was meant to be, and everyone who heard them at the time knew it.

One of those was Clifford Antone, and he decided to do something about it on Sixth Street. On a block also home to Benny's Tavern, a bar that wouldn't serve women but did dish up fresh deviled eggs, Antone's opened in 1975 and gave the Fabulous Thunderbirds their own clubhouse. Now the old Cadillacs and Oldsmobile 225s had a place to go at night, and a growing crew of get-downers could chase closing time all week long. It took a minute to catch on, but by the time Muddy Waters came to play and learned what so many locals already knew, Vaughan, Wilson, Mike Buck, and Keith Ferguson had unlocked the door to infinity and were giving lessons. This was music almost too good to be true, and as Austin had become a way station in the middle of America for big-time tours, many of those stars ended up on the corner of Sixth and Brazos to grab a slice of nirvana for themselves.

In the second half of the 1970s, an Italian restaurant on 29th Street just west of Guadalupe called Rome Inn began featuring music and gave the Thunderbirds Monday nights. If ever an audience and a band melted into one beautiful mess, it was on those Mondays. Buck's primordial beat painted the isotopes with jungle hues, while Ferguson's Fender bass almost played itself. He was so cool to the touch as his glassy glare cut through everything in its path. That left Wilson and Vaughan as Chip and Dale, battling each other with lead lines and groove moves that sent the in crowd into orbit, shouting and squiggling with glee, egging on the bluesmen like a sonic bullfight.

People like Billy Gibbons and Bob Dylan hid in the Rome's dark corners, taking notes no doubt, trying to figure out if purity like this could be bottled. At a time when cosmic cowboys were lassoing national headlines, this hedonistic heaven was a secret society for fun seekers. Jimmie's little brother, Stevie Ray Vaughan, was kick-starting his career with the Triple Threat Revue, so I had the bright idea to interview each guitarist separately for a cover story in The Austin Sun. With the headline "Young Giants of the Blues," Jimmie Vaughan's first interview was published April 29, 1978.

The Big Payback

Family style: Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan (l), 1978
Family style: Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan (l), 1978 (Photo by Ken Hoge)

Austin Sun: When did you start playing?

Jimmie Vaughan: Sixty-three, something like. I wanted to play drums first, but guitar was easier.

AS: Did you first play rock & roll?

JV: Sure. Ventures, Little Richard, anything. I was playing in gyms, skating rinks, anywhere.

AS: Weren't you fairly young when you started touring in a rock band?

JV: That was in '66 and '67, with the Chessmen.

AS: What was that like?

JV: Great. I got to leave home.

AS: When did you begin playing blues?

JV: I always had blues records. I always liked it. I just couldn't find anyone else to play it with me, so I did rock & roll. But I finally got tired of that, so I moved down here in '69. I've been trying to play blues ever since then.

AS: What brought you here?

JV: I couldn't play blues in Dallas, and I didn't like who I was playing with. It just wasn't working in Dallas, and I knew some musicians on the Eastside, at the old I.L. club. So I thought I'd move here and try to start something with them. I wanted to play, play what I liked.

AS: Was this when you began to put Storm together?

JV: Yeah, that's where I met all those guys that ended up in Storm. So we kicked around for a few years. But it got boring, too. Then I met Kim Wilson, and I wanted a band with him.

AS: Do people ever tell you it's strange that you're sticking with the blues?

Thunderbirds on Sixth Street, 1978: (l-r) Vaughan, Ferguson, Buck, and Wilson
Thunderbirds on Sixth Street, 1978: (l-r) Vaughan, Ferguson, Buck, and Wilson (Photo by Ken Hoge)

JV: They used to. But I've been spending since '69 doing this, so they don't ask anymore. It's the same with the band. Kim did the same thing as me, played around with rock. But it's always been a search. When we decided to get together with this, we had the same thing in mind. A lot of the songs we do are ones we make up, though it sounds like other blues. And we do things that are from Chicago, like Little Walter songs, Jimmy Rogers, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters. But people that say we're a Chicago blues band because we've got a guitar and harp, with bass and drums, don't know we've never even been to Chicago. I guess they have to call you something. It's all the same, in a way.

AS: Do you ever feel like you're carrying on the blues tradition?

JV: It's just what I've gotta do. It's what I do. That's all. It's like other people play commercial – it's what they do. I'm not trying to do anything except play.

AS: It seems that your band is in a unique position: a young group doing all the blues.

JV: We got all our stuff from the same people that Buddy Guy and those people got their thing from. It's weird, kind of all twisted up. But I don't think it's fair to call us "Chicago." I just want to go over; I want everybody to like it.

AS: Do you ever feel like Austin takes you for granted?

JV: Sometimes, but that's because we play here so much. There is not much of a scene here; if it wasn't for Antone's there wouldn't be anything.

AS: When you play in front of the older players and they like you, how do you feel?

JV: I love it! It makes me feel like it's okay to do it after all.

AS: What's the payback?

JV: It's what I like, it's the only way I can hear it. There's nothing else I can do anyway. I could go be somebody's helper or something.

AS: You and Kim seem to be a pretty good pair together.

JV: We don't hardly have to talk anymore. It's a certain click. See, there's a way you're supposed to play, a way to start it and end it. There are these rules, and we've got the same rules.

AS: Can you describe at all the power of the blues?

JV: It's kinda – well, no I can't. It's one of those things where you either love it or you don't like it at all.

Wrap It Up

The Fabulous Thunderbirds' first album arrived in 1979, and the world found out what had been brewing in the Austin incubator. The sound of Vaughan alone woke up other guitarists. How did he do it? What's the secret to capturing that timeless suspense living inside every note? Who are all the influences we missed? Surely there are tricks involved. But that was the beauty of the Texan's attack: It was full of a feeling that was his alone. It fueled the Thunderbirds to trust themselves and stay zeroed in on one thing: playing what they liked. Outsiders were not let in, and if somehow they did pick the locks, they were soon sent packing. As the band grew in strength and stature, grabbing hit records and worldwide renown, during those T-Bird years nothing really changed except the workload. And then it did.

Near the end of the 1980s, Jimmie Vaughan looked around and realized it wasn't fun anymore, so he left. Pure and simple. He made an album with his brother, 1990's Family Style, but then the unthinkable happened and he lost him too. Musicwise, the elder Vaughan was now on his own and may have felt a bit like he did when he'd first moved to Austin 20 years ago. Solo albums followed: Strange Pleasure (1994), Out There (1998), Do You Get the Blues? (2001), and On the Jimmy Reed Highway (2007) with Omar Kent Dykes. Blues is funny business, though, because for charter members it's everything. If you really hear the alchemy of turning pain into joy – a lyric or a lead solo or even just the touch of a brush on a snare drum – the caring that comes from it will sustain a person through everything. It cannot be explained or demonstrated, but once it's understood an inner world awaits.

This past March, Jimmie Vaughan stood onstage during South by Southwest, having just received a birthday cake from his wife. Their young twin daughters were at home, probably asleep. He was smiling, nearly finished with a set that sent the raucous crowd to the moon. About 10 blocks from the site of the old One Knite, now home to Stubb's, he still had the smile that used to light up that stage then. Vaughan held his Stratocaster like it was a part of him, playing the strings the way poets choose words. The once-young giant of the blues has become a beacon now, a musician spoken of in the same breath with those who invented this precious sound. As surely as the Colorado River runs through the middle of the city and bluebonnets will be back in the spring with their endless amazement, Jimmie Vaughan offers a window into what one soul can do, and that is play the blues for you.

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Jimmie Vaughan, Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Clifford Antone, One Knite

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