Photograph by James Minchin III
Back on Track
Jimmie Vaughan: A Lone Star state of mind
By Alan Sculley
Jimmie Vaughan has entered a new phase with his latest CD, Do You Get The Blues? After more than a decade on Epic Records, first during his long stint as guitarist in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and then for his first two CDs as a solo artist, Strange Pleasure and Out There, both on the Sony/Epic label, Vaughan has moved over to the independent Artemis Records.
“They let me do the record like what I wanted,” Vaughan says of Artemis. “They weren’t trying to get me to use this [producer], some guy who just had a hit with ‘N Sync, you know what I mean. You run into a wall sometimes. Some people have crazy ideas. But I’m happy with [the new CD]. I like to try to make records so that 15 years from now if you’re playing the record and you go, ‘You know, that sounds pretty good.’ It’s not about the latest gizmos and all that.”
Sounding both contemporary and timeless is a central goal for Vaughan whenever he enters the studio. As an artist whose music is seeped in the blues, that’s not always an easy goal, since there are those who consider blues a relic from an earlier era.
Suffice to say Vaughan doesn’t agree with that way of thinking. “I didn’t go and evaluate the market before I made this record,” he says. “I mean, I think my records are current. They’re not nostalgia records. They’ve got a lot of roots in them, and it is blues and this and it’s got all kinds of elements in it. You can pick out what that is. You can say ‘That sounds like an old gospel record’ or that sounds like [something else]. But I’m not trying to make an authentic, looking-back kind of record. To me this [stuff] is like now.”
Do You Get The Blues? could convince more than a few skeptics that at least in Vaughan’s hands, the blues is nowhere near as arcane as they think. Bill Willis’ chunky Hammond B-3 organ and George Rains’ in-the-pocket drumming give the songs a spirited groove. That bedrock sound, coupled with Vaughan’s lean and expressive lead guitar and some occasional gospel-tinged male vocal harmonies, gives Vaughan one of the most distinctive and fresh styles on the roots-music scene.
It’s a sound that was clearly defined from the opening notes of Vaughan’s solo debut Strange Pleasure and its rousing lead track “Boom-Bapa-Boom.” But there are subtle new wrinkles on the new disc. On his cover of the soulful “In The Middle of the Night” and the rocking “Power of Love,” Vaughan supplements his sound by sharing lead vocals with the great Austin-based singer Lou Ann Barton, who joins him Nov. 11 at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma.
The cosmic instrumental “Planet Bongo” and the moody ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Set” get much of their atmosphere from the flute playing of Herman Green, a veteran Memphis musician who got his start in the late 1940s as a member of B. B. King’s original band. The CD’s first single, “The Deep End,” is another slight departure, as this tangy tune highlights Vaughan’s work on acoustic slide guitar and also features a guest turn from Muddy Waters’ former harmonica player, James Cotton.
“I’ll tell you the story on that one,” Vaughan says. “We used to be the house band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, at Antone’s nightclub [in Austin], way back in the day. The first time Muddy Waters came, we opened for him. He liked us, so one night I pulled out my slide guitar and kind of did a little Muddy thing on a song. The next night when we did it, he came out and grabbed me by the neck from behind me on the stage and was kind of choking me and kind of playing with me. And then he told me later, ‘When I’m gone, I want you to show people what I did. That’s it. Show people what I did.’
“So I remembered that, and this was my opportunity to do that. And then James Cotton was there, too, so it all just made sense.”
Both on album and onstage, Vaughan these days clearly seems energized by his music. That’s something he couldn’t say toward the end of his 15-year stint in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the rocking blues-based group he formed with singer Kim Wilson and the band with which he recorded such popular albums as Tuff Enough and Hot Number.
“I was just sort of burned out,” Vaughan said, describing the period that preceded his departure after the 1989 Fabulous Thunderbirds CD Powerful Stuff. “You know, just a lot of drinking and drugs, and it was mostly just you’re young and you’re burning the candle at both ends and the candle gets too short, you know. And then everybody’s personality gets in the way. It was just screwed up, and I just had to get off the bus and go home and rethink my whole thing. We had just been on the road for so long. After we had a couple of hits, then the booking agents wanted us to play four gigs a day.
“I just ran out of gas.”
The professional wear and tear was complicated by personal tragedy. Just before leaving the T-birds, Vaughan fulfilled a longtime dream by recording Family Style with his younger, more famous brother Stevie Ray Vaughan. But in August of 1990, Stevie Ray perished in a helicopter crash after a concert at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin. Jimmie retreated following the tragedy, and it wasn’t until 1994 that he re-emerged with Strange Pleasure. With his lifestyle cleaned up and his solo sound to pursue, Vaughan once again enjoys his life in the studio and on the road.
“I’m present now. I’m able to enjoy things, and it just took what it took,” he says. “It was a great time in the T-Birds. We were fun and we made a lot of good records. We had a lot of fun and went everywhere.
“I’m having a ball now. These are the good old days.”
Jimmie Vaughan and Lou Ann Barton perform Sunday, Nov. 11, at 8 p.m., at the Mystic Theatre, 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Tickets are $20. 707/765-2121.
From the November 8-14, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.