As much as any musician, Jimmie Vaughan has much to do with Austin, Texas, emerging as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Since the early 70’s, this former wunderkind, who is now technically a senior citizen, made blues music which was authentic, original and accessible.
When I first conducted this interview with Jimmie back in May of 2015, he was very interested in talking about the legacy of his younger brother Stevie. It was at this time, after all these years, at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles, Jimmie allowed to be displayed a treasure trove of possessions that once belonged to Stevie. They had been in Jimmie’s possession since the untimely helicopter accident that claimed his brother’s life. The zeal with which Jimmie protects his brother’s legacy is like that of any big brother who looks after his little brother. I’m not sure many folks understood or appreciated this fact. It is as if by somehow having a brother who happens to be a rock and blues icon you are obligated to wave those rights.
Jimmie also thought, as noted in the interview, that by putting these things on display it might increase some awareness with the folks at the Rock& Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF) and maybe they would finally induct Stevie, who, most would agree, is a worthy recipient and a long overdue one at that. Later that year the RRHOF did finally induct Stevie.
Now two years later this exhibit comes back home to Austin and the Bullock Museum. This display will be in place during the massive South by Southwest (SXSW) music extravaganza which is an annual Austin event. Jimmie is the guest curator for this exhibit.
In the two years since this conversation, the distinctive guitar of Jimmie Vaughan has appeared on numerous recordings. From the 2016 release by Duke Robillard to songs on the great album by the Knickerbocker All-Stars entitled, Texas Rhody Blues, you can hear the one of a kind beauty of Jimmie’s guitar. He plays on the opening track of the excellent brand new album by Delbert McClinton entitled, Prick of the Litter. His guitar can also be heard on a couple of tracks on the new album by 18 year old Texan, Dylan Bishop, who is interviewed in the March edition of BLUES JUNCTION.
He also appears regularly in Austin with Hammond B3 player Mike Flannigan as part of that great trio. In the past year Jimmie has played at the Lincoln Center in New York City with Steve Miller as part of a T-Bone Walker tribute and later this Month on the 25th and 26th he will be opening for Eric Clapton at the Forum in Los Angeles (Inglewood). I thought the time was right to re-visit this interview.
Through the years I liked to ask musicians and fans of blues music “What was that one record or one live performance that you heard that made you think ‘I want to hear more of this’? What was that experience that made you realize that you will never get enough of this music and it will be something you will treasure for the rest of your life?”
That question is only interesting in that, for most of us, this music is not something that we were necessarily surrounded by while growing up. For most of us, we have to go to it. Blues is not mainstream music that will come to us.
Through the years folks have asked me that question and I have, without hesitation, given them the same answer.
In the spring of 1981 I was working for a publishing company in Dallas, Texas. A colleague of mine asked me if I wanted to go to a nightclub to hear a band that he liked. I had already established fairly specific tastes in music that included a broad spectrum of styles, but even then I didn’t have the patience to sit through an evening of mediocre music, no matter what kind it was. I was a skeptic, as even the name of this band sounded pretentious to me. I thought to myself, ‘I’ll decide what is fabulous and what is not.’
We went to the joint. It was real a big nightclub on lower Greenville Avenue called, Nick’s Up Town. The band was of course The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Upon entering the nightclub he pointed out the band sitting at the bar. The drummer looked like some kind of hep cat, the bass player frightened me a little, the singer and harmonica player wore an orange t-shirt with the name of a sporting goods manufacturer written in script with black letters that, as it turned out, happened to be his last name. He also wore a turban. Nice.... The guitar player looked like he had just robbed a vintage clothing store and had a friend who worked in a brylcream factory.
They definitely had a look, but I didn’t give a rat’s behind about that. Did they have a sound? That’s all I cared about.
The place filled up quickly and there was even a line out the door and around the block waiting to get in. By the time they were done with their first number I felt like I had been hit with a lightning bolt. They had a sound alright and it was the greatest thing I had ever heard.
Until that moment, I thought of the music known as the blues as a museum piece that I enjoyed despite the fact that it seemed dated, out of step and old fashioned. That never bothered me, but on that night this music became hip, cool and in the moment. It also felt comforting to know I wasn’t alone as it was obvious that other young people enjoyed this music as well. That nightclub and its dance floor remained packed until 1:30 in the morning.
The band whose members were, but a few years older than me, went on to great success and helped to spark a blues revival that what people at the time called, Blue Wave Music. That wave crashed on the shore during the first few years of the twenty first century, but in the meantime the guitar player in that band, Jimmie Vaughan, would become one of the most revered players of his generation and serve as a huge influence on a whole new generation of blues musicians.
It is almost a quarter of a century now since Vaughan left that band which had such a profound influence on how I, and the world, would come to view this music. It is almost as long since the one man, to whose legacy he will always be linked, his brother, was killed in a helicopter crash.
Jimmie Vaughan’s long solo career has been marked by consistent, critical and popular success. What Vaughan has done with his music and his guitar is one of the most elusive accomplishments in the blues field. He has created an instantly recognizable voice while staying true to decades old traditions. He has done things his way and on his own terms.
Last Friday I caught up with Jimmie, as he was kind enough to place a phone call to me at my behest. Enjoy a conversation I had with the one and only Jimmie Vaughan.
Jimmie Vaughan (JV): Hey Dave, you got a Gene Ammons tune on your phone. I love Gene Ammons.
David Mac (DM): I do too, but was actually listening to Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson when you called.
JV: Willis Jackson is great. Have you ever heard the song Pool Shark?
DM: I don’t know that I have.
JV: You’ve got to check that song out man. It is unbelievable, but I think it is so cool that you’ve got Gene Ammons on your phone.
DM: I am glad you like it, but you got lucky; there are about five instrumentals for my ring back tone that are in some kind of random rotation. Next time you call I won’t pick up. I’ll just assume you wanted to listen to Gene Ammons. I was just listening the other night to a bunch of tracks off of this huge Gene Ammons, four disc, eighty five song, Japanese import that came out a few years ago.
JV: Oh yeah, I have that. I particularly like the stuff from the late 40’s.
DM: Red Top!
JV: I love that song. The way he plays, he talks to you like you are his friend. He tells you things and he never gets in a hurry. If he does something fancy once in a while it is like a cat slappin’ you around a little bit. Then he drags you along by your ear and you can’t get away. Each phrase is more exciting than the last. He just kind of picks you up and drops you on the floor then goes on to something else. It’s the greatest thing I ever heard. I don’t know how to explain it really.
DM: All evidence to the contrary. I think I know a guitar player who plays like that.
JV: I aspire to play like that. I think if you want to emulate someone musically speaking on an emotional level that would be what you would want. He has that tone you know and it’s like he never plays anything goofy. I don’t know how he does it. Even if he makes a little tiny flub, which he hardly ever does, it sounds cool.
DM: This is all instrumental music we are talking about here. You typically have at least one or two instrumentals on your albums. Does your affinity toward instrumental music come from your love of this bluesy jazz music we are talking about?
JV: It comes from a lot of things. I have loved instrumental music since I was a kid. It was really big back then in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Growing up in Dallas, the radio stations would play instrumentals before and after the news came on. It might be an Albert Collins song with a sax in it. It was always some kind of an R&B instrumental. Instrumental music was big everywhere in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Lonnie Mack, The Ventures, Booker T. and the M.G.s, all that stuff just sounds so cool to me. Then in Texas you had Johnny Watson, I love his stuff. Down on the Gulf Coast you had Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. There was Pee Wee Crayton who was sort of a protégé of T-Bone Walker’s. A lot of those guys ended up playing out in Los Angeles on Central Avenue. Their music however was really big in Texas and they all had a lot of instrumentals in their repertoire.
DM: ...and Freddie King...
JV: Oh my God. I don’t think you could get a gig anywhere in Texas if you couldn’t play Hideaway. The other two tunes that had to be played were Honky Tonk and Hold It by Bill Doggett. It didn’t matter if you were in a country western band, a rock and roll band or a blues band if you didn’t know Hideaway, forget about it.
DM: During the same time period down in Houston, Albert Collins was making great instrumental records.
JV: Absolutely! Everybody was doing instrumentals, Bob Wills, The Light Crust Doughboys. There is this a great tradition of instrumental music in Texas that goes way back and I just love it.
The real reason I started playing instrumentals early on was because I was playing professionally around town in Dallas at such a young age I still had a high pitched squeaky little kid’s voice so I didn’t sing, but when I played guitar you couldn’t tell so much that I was just a little kid.
DM: Speaking of Dallas lets go back to your childhood home and talk about your early exposures to music.
JV: My uncles on both sides of the family were musicians; they played guitar and bass. On my mom’s side they were country musicians. Back in those days it was hard country, not like country music is now. On my dad’s side there were quite a few musicians. There was a musical tradition on that side as well. He had a relative on his mother’s side, Charles LaRue who played trombone in Tommy Dorsey’s band in the 40’s. My dad liked big band music. He was a dancer. His favorite musician was a trombone player named Jack Teagarden. He was very bluesy.
DM: He recorded and toured with Louis Armstrong and was a band leader in his own right.
JL: Oh yeah, he goes way back. My dad just loved his music for some reason. He was from Texas too.
DM: Speaking of Armstrong, I saw an interview with him on some documentary. The great Edward R. Murrow asked him this long question about the different styles of jazz music. Dixieland, swing, bebop, cool jazz and so on. Armstrong looked at him and said, “There are only two kinds of music, The good kind and the other kind. I play the good kind.” I sense that you view music in a similar way.
JV: As a kid I didn’t know anything about any of that or understood about categories. I just liked cool guitar playing and cool music. I don’t know if I was just completely dumb, but I did know that country bands played Jimmie Reed songs in Dallas and I knew that B.B. King and Little Milton were playing country songs in their own way. If anybody goes back and listens to all that stuff there isn’t a lot of difference. I’m sorry, but there just isn’t. That’s the way I see it anyway.
DM: It has been my observation that blues fans in particular seem to be more rigid in their tastes than the blues musicians who are more open minded and listen to a wider variety of music.
JV: I think that is probably true, but what I think the cool thing about music is that it represents liberty. You choose what you listen to and nobody can tell you what to listen to and what to like. You have to decide that for yourself. I like that. So I always have my own top forty constantly and it changes.
DM: Did you have access to blues on the radio in Dallas back in those days?
JV: I did. We had a station, KNOK which played blues. They also played rock and roll and rhythm and blues too. Again we’re talking late 50’s early 60’s, so all that stuff was contemporary and it all kind of blended together. In those days there wasn’t a big difference between any of that stuff.
DM: It seems like back in the day, music might have been a more important part of people’s lives and they enjoyed music communally and with family. Nobody was in their room by themselves listening to their personal devices like iPods through ear buds.
JV: That’s a good point. For example, my dad was an asbestos worker and was in the union. On the weekends he would bring some of these guys over from the local to the house with their wives to play dominoes. There was a couple of guys who would bring their guitars over and play in the living room. One of those guys was named Leonard. I would just sit there and watch these guys play. One day Leonard showed me some Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and Chuck Berry stuff. He showed me how it went and what they did. It was amazing. From that one little lesson I learned a lot.
DM: Do you have any recollection as to a time frame or when something clicked and you realized you had a real aptitude towards playing the guitar.
JV: (laughs) yeah... the first day.
DM: OK, fair enough.
JV: I’m not kidding. What happened was I got tackled playing football and I broke my collar bone. I had to wear this soft bandage type of thing, a sling, which is how you heel a broken collar bone. So I was going to have to stay home from school for two and half, maybe three, months, which I didn’t mind. So my dad gave me a guitar he got from a friend he worked with. He was in a rock and roll band, but was away in the Navy. The guitar had only three strings on it. The first thing I learned was Honky Tonk. I started with that little riff and took it from there. I have been playing ever since. I was off to the races right away. I just loved it.
DM: Did you have the opportunity to see live music in those days?
JV: On Saturdays they had all these bands play on this local T.V. station, channel 11. It went into the night and they ended the day with a show called, Cow Town Jamboree. They had Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings and all kinds of people, mostly country, on that show.
DM: Let’s talk about some of your early experiences playing out in public.
JV: The first experiences were playing at school dances in the gym. In the summertime we would play at a place called the Hob Knob Lounge. We had a trio. The paid us $150.00 a week. That’s fifty bucks a piece per week! There was no P.A. so we played through the jukebox. You just plugged your 664 microphone through there and that was it. The drummer, Phil Campbell sang. Ronnie Sterling was on bass. We were just a little kid band. We were all just thirteen years old.
DM: $50.00 a week in 1962 for a thirteen year old! That’s a lot of dough. I’ll bet I know what you were spending your money on.
JV: Records! There were two or three record shops on Jefferson Avenue right here in the Oak Cliff neighborhood where I grew up. They had pawn shops and music stores and everything down there. I would take the bus down there and buy records and just stare at the guitars in the windows of the music store and dream.
DM: Fifty some odd years later, not much has changed.
JV: That’s right. Someone is still paying me to play guitar. I have the greatest job in the world. I get to do what I love and play my favorite songs with a great band. I am having as much fun as I have ever had. The audiences have been great. People are digging what we are doing. I simply couldn’t ask for a better life.
DM: If you take it all the way back to that music store window, you are literally living the dream. On top of that, you are still buying records and you don’t even have to take the bus down to Jefferson Avenue.
JV: We have talked about this before Dave, but there is so much great music out there. I haven’t heard it all and I am still finding new stuff everyday that I haven’t heard before. It is really fun.
DM: You got that right. In recent years, two new records have found their way into my library and they are the two most recent entries in your catalogue, 2010’s Blues Ballads and Favorites and the 2011’s ...Plays More Blues Ballads and Favorites. They just might be my favorites from your long career. Let’s talk about those recordings.
JV: The songs on those records are songs for the most part that I have been listening to for a long time and that I always admired. I hold those recordings up real high. It was scary to do them because you can’t really do them better than the original records. So we started doing those old songs and it was fun...so we just kept going.
DM: ...and now you are going back out on the road with that great band and those great songs. I checked your website this morning. You have dates on the books all the way through November and all over the world, starting out here in California. Let’s talk a bit about what audiences can expect to hear at one of your shows.
JV: We do a lot of songs that I have recorded through the years and some that I haven’t. I have enough records out that I can pretty much grab stuff from different albums and mix it up a little. We do my stuff and my favorite songs by others. We have Lou Ann (Barton) singing as well as myself, so we can go in a lot of different directions. We do a pretty big cross section of material.
DM: Your band has had many of the same players in it for years now. In this business, or any business for that matter, that is pretty astonishing and certainly commendable.
JV: Take our drummer George (Rains) he has been with me for twenty years.
DM: George is such a great drummer and is one of my all time favorites. Let’s talk a little about Mr. Rains.
JV: He is from Fort Worth. He went out to San Francisco when things were really going on out there in the 60’s. He played with Boz Scaggs and Mother Earth. When he came back to Texas in the 70’s he was based out of Austin, so I played with him backing different folks at Antone’s. He then got hooked back up with Doug Sahm, who he played with before moving to San Francisco. He played on my first solo album, Strange Pleasure in 94’ and has been with me ever since. He has a great sound. He is very cool and it is a real joy to play with him.
DM: You made a reference to your first solo album, Strange Pleasure. One of the elements that would shape your sound is the Hammond B3 of Bill Willis. How did your long association with the late, great Bill Willis come about?
JV: Bill came through Austin with the singer Laverne Baker and he was playing the B3 with her. He had a way of playing that I really enjoyed. He just sounded great and it was very cool. So I asked him if he played bass on the organ and he said, “Oh yeah.” I asked him right there on the spot if he would come to L.A. and do a session with me. From those sessions came Strange Pleasure. He’s played on everything I did since then. He is even on a few tracks on Blues Ballads and Favorites.
DM: Another aspect of the sound of that first incarnation, of what would eventually be known as the Tilt-A-Whirl Band, was the inclusion of the male backup singers.
JV: They kind of do what the horn section does now. I had been listening to a lot of The 5 Royales and I kind of wanted to do something along those lines except in a slightly more modern way. It was just another trip Dave. I mean that stuff sounds so cool I thought, ‘I want to do this.’
DM: The second incarnation of the Tilt-A-Whirl Band includes horns.
JV: We have the great Doug James on baritone and tenor sax. He has been with us for a few years now. We go way back. One of the newest members of the band is our trombone player, Mike Rinta. He is a great musician out of the bay area.
Another relatively new member of the band is our bass player Billy Horton of the Horton Brothers. He did a lot of work with Nick Curran.
DM: ... and then there is Billy Pittman…
JV: Billy has been with me a long time. I met him out in Los Angeles years ago. He plays a lot of the chords. He plays real old style rhythm guitar and kind of holds the whole thing together with the rhythm section.
DM: By the time you started your solo career you were already a very well known commodity. You had been with the T-Birds for years and they were a very high profile band but I don’t know if people knew what a Jimmie Vaughan solo album would sound like.
JV: I knew I wasn’t going to try and sound like the T-Birds.
DM: (laughs) Everyone else was.
JV: I know, but I had already done that. I just never wanted to do the same thing over and over again. It’s not because I didn’t like it, but I always felt like it is good to try different things now and again and keep moving this way and that, if that makes sense.
DM: It makes perfect sense. What’s your next move?
JV: Well, I have been playing with this B3 trio here in Austin, Mike Flanigin along with Barry “Frosty” Smith on drums. We are planning to put out an LP album. It will be a B3 trio kind of thing. I really wouldn’t call it jazz, but it is but it is very jazzy. It is more of an R&B, blues kind of thing. We have been playing different clubs here in town when I’m not on the road. It is real fun.
DM: Maybe this takes us all the way back to that discussion of tenor sax players and Gene Ammons. There is an album I have had for years and years. It is Gene Ammons playing with different organ trios. Do you think of yourself and your playing as if you were a sax player?
JV: I listen to a lot of sax players as you know. We have talked about that. I get real tired of all the guitar player stuff. So I do find a lot of inspiration from horn players, including trumpet players. Inspiration can come from anywhere. I even get a lot of inspiration from Flamenco music. It doesn’t necessarily mean I am going to make a Flamenco album or anything. I just listen to music all the time and I listen to music that moves me and there is plenty of it. I never run out of music. I am always trying something new. I am always hearing something that will inspire me to try something different. So I say to myself, ‘Maybe I’ll try this.’ Not everything you try works, but you keep trying. The search is fun.
DM: The other person I would like to talk to you about whose career is intertwined with yours is the great Lou Ann Barton.
JV: I first met her on gig up in Dallas. This was before the T-Birds. She was playing in a band called Freddie Cisneros and the Five Careless Lovers and they were on the bill that night. Freddie is a great guitarist from Fort Worth. Anyway, Lou Ann came out and just smoked it man. She did a Little Richard medley. I mean, I just couldn’t handle it. I was thinking about putting a band together and I had all this stuff in mind. I had just heard Kim (Wilson) play somewhere and I then when I saw Lou Ann, I walked right up and told her I am putting a band together and I wanted her to be the singer. I told her we will be just like Ike and Tina Turner (laughs), musically speaking of course. So that’s how she got into the original Thunderbirds. So we have been playing together off and on ever since. She has been on all of my solo records.
At the beginning she played with us for a little bit and then she went and played with Stevie and W.C. Clarke in the Triple Threat Revue. So she played with either me or Stevie off and on since the early 70’s.
DM: One of the things that I dug about the T-Birds was the fact in those early days that the band was playing real obscure covers from Gulf Coast musicians that not too many people had heard outside of Texas and Louisiana.
JV: A lot of that stuff came from our bass player Keith Ferguson and our drummer Mike Buck. They were both big record collectors. The other part of that equation was we didn’t want to be just another band doing all Chicago blues and Little Walter stuff. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff is great and Kim could play Little Walter really good, but we are from down here and we wanted to play music that came from this part of the country. We always thought it was good to be different.
DM: During this time there was one band led by a guy who played guitar. He found a mainstream commercial audience with his brand of music and that of course is your brother. So by the mid-eighties both The T-Birds and his band Double Trouble were playing in front of large audiences and really at the forefront of what would become a full fledged blues revival.
JV: The funny part was we were being kind of selfish in that were just playing music that we loved. We both had a one track mind. We both figured out at a pretty young age what it is we were good at and that is what we focused on, that one thing. We always thought that the musicians whose stuff we were playing were the coolest, so we just wanted to do that.
DM: Looking back on those days, it is pretty astonishing that you found a large audience by playing exactly what you wanted to play.
JV: A lot of people told us ‘You can’t have a blues band. You’ve got to do this. That music is over. What in the world are you thinking? Are you out of your mind? You will never get a record deal.’ We were young and we just knew what we wanted and didn’t care what anybody said. We wanted to play the blues. On top of that, there are plenty of other assholes playing the other stuff. (laughs) l’ll probably get in trouble for that one.
DM: (Laughing) Probably not. Let's talk about what is going on at the Grammy Museum starting here in June.
JV: There is going to be an exhibit of Stevie’s memorabilia there in downtown Los Angeles. None of this stuff has been seen anywhere outside of two of his guitars that I had shown at the Bob Bullock Museum down by the Capitol here in Austin.
DM: Why now and why Los Angeles?
JV: Well, simply because Bob (Robert Santelli, Director of the Grammy Museum) asked me if I would like to talk about doing a display of Stevie’s things. I said OK. It seemed to be about the right time. It’s going to be 24 years come August since he got killed. People love that stuff and so I was happy to do it. I like Bob and it seemed like the right thing to do. Also, I would like to see Stevie get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has been eligible for a few years now. This kind of exposure might help. All these things kind of came together.
DM: I had a younger brother who was hit by a car and died just a few years before your brother’s death in that helicopter crash. After a few weeks or months people stopped beginning every conversation with, ‘I am so sorry to hear about your brother.’ For you that never goes away. I just can’t imagine how you dealt with that for all these years. Let’s talk about that if you don’t mind.
JV: The first thing I realized is that there is no privacy when it comes to my brother. You have all these fans who talk about him like it is some kind of religion and I understand that, but they didn’t know him. He was MY little brother. I wanted to protect my memories of him because they were mine. It was really hard.
I mean I would be at the grocery store bending over and grabbing a can a coffee and someone who I don’t know comes up on me and starts screaming and crying, ‘Oh my God. I am soooooo sorry about your brother.’ I am just trying to get some coffee.
People remember where they were when they got the news, they remember the sadness that they had and they want to share that with you and they hadn’t dealt with it. I mean, it’s not about me, but I guess I bring that emotion out in them. I’ve learned how to accept it better. I don’t get upset with them anymore. I just didn’t know what to do with any of that.
DM: How could you? There is no way to anticipate the shock, sadness and sense of loss on a very emotional personal level and then have to deal with ongoing public side of it.
JV: That is exactly right. Time helps you deal with it better, but you never get over it. I think people are really going to enjoy seeing all this stuff. There are a lot of his personal things in there. There is some of his hand writing on some of the famous songs he wrote. Some of them had different titles, but you can tell what they are. We have some of his guitars, some of his clothes. We are going to have one of his amplifiers set up so the guitar geeks can check that out. It should be really good.
DM: So you have had all these items in your personal possession all this time?
DM: Have you received any pressure from various Stevie Ray Vaughan fan clubs or others to put these items on public display over the past twenty four years?
JV: I can’t worry about what people want me to do or think I should do. I don’t spend my life worrying about what others think. I decided I am just going to not think about any of that stuff. I made a decision to just live my life and be happy. Here is the weird part. There are a lot of Stevie fans who like to sit around and argue, ‘Stevie is the best and Jimmie don’t know shit. I like Stevie. No, I like Jimmie. No, Stevie is the greatest. No, Jimmie is the greatest and Stevie is wrong and on and on.’
DM: Music is not a sport. It is art. The reason I like sports is because there is a scoreboard. The reason I like art is because there isn’t one.
JV: Exactly! Blues music is a language and everybody has their own accent. As far as my brother’s playing is concerned he was an AMAZING guitar player who had his style and his own voice and I am extremely proud of him. That’s why we are doing this exhibit. It should be fun. It will run for several months maybe even a year. It has also been very healing.
DM: Sharing and healing go hand in hand. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me this morning. I enjoyed it.
JV: You are very welcome Dave. I did too. I appreciate what you do. Now you can get back to that Willis Jackson record. Hey, are you going to make it out to one of our shows next week.
DM: I wouldn’t miss it.
JV: See you then.