Cry tough

Essential bassist Tommy Shannon hangs in there

Tommy Shannon and his wife, Kumi, are raising four elegant horses--three of them Trakehners, an athletic European breed--on their Austin ranch. This land, where the Shannons have recently settled, spills out into unspoiled Hill Country. With just a bit more landscaping, it will resemble the American dreamscape befitting a humble musician who's overpaid his dues.

"We just got that black mare over there," says Shannon, standing at the corral. "Her name's Deja. She's being bred tomorrow. They're sending sperm down, the vet's gonna squirt it in, and she's gonna have a baby."

Two 11-year-old cats stroll the turf. Poignantly, both were presented to the Shannons as kittens by an old friend who died just yesterday. That friend was Keith Ferguson, the only other Austin blues bassist whose importance--and struggles--rival that of Shannon's.

The interior of the ranch house bears testament to Shannon's allegiance to another dear, departed comrade.

Shannon was Stevie Ray Vaughan's musical partner for a decade, and gold records and Canadian platinum discs line the hallway. "I'm so proud of these," says Shannon of the four Grammys sitting on the piano. The most recent arrived in 1996--Best Blues Instrumental for "SRV Shuffle," from a televised tribute concert. Another commemorates the 1984 Montreux Pop Festival. "Seven people booed us, but it sounded like a thousand," Shannon recalls. "We left the stage broken-hearted, crushed." For the live recording of the evening, Blues Explosion, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble copped a Grammy--karmic payback for the encore they never received.

Encores continue as the SRV legend grows. Vaughan justly provided Shannon points from album sales and even on merchandising--an extremely rare arrangement for "sidemen." And, like Vaughan, Tommy Shannon's ego remains modest in light of his legendary past.

Shannon may indeed be a wonderful bassist, but his special place in music history boils down to the uncanny fact that he was in the right place at the most right of times. He was the primary bass player for both Johnny Winter and Vaughan--Texas' two most celebrated rock guitarists--during two distinct and separate eras. Shannon accompanied both from obscurity into their prime--in the case of Vaughan, through his entire recording career.

"I'm glad to be 50 years old," says Shannon, who now plays bass in soul-rock band Storyville. "I was born the perfect time. I witnessed the birth of rock and roll, I went through the whole revolution of the '60s, and I got to participate and live it. There's no way you can explain to kids today how great it was."

It's also hard to explain Shannon's plunge from budding '60s rock stardom with Winter into a hell of unending addiction and multiple jail sentences, followed by years of hard labor as a bricklayer--which, to a gifted and sensitive musician, was no different than being on a chain gang. When Shannon teamed up with an obscure Austin guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan, lightning struck again, a generation later.

The months before and after an artist's breakthrough--the elusive transitional period known as making it--are often his most urgent artistic moments. That Tommy Shannon happened to be there for both guitarists may not be sheer coincidence. Tall and humble--Lincolnesque, you might say--Shannon's rise, crash, and resurrection seem orchestrated by angels.

Keith Ferguson, Austin's other legendary blues bassist with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Tailgators, died the day before this interview. Shannon is deeply shaken. He can't even attend the wake on Sunday--Storyville is booked on the road.

Shannon donated five bass guitars to Ferguson in recent years. Each bass likely got Ferguson out to a few gigs. Then, like all of Keith's instruments, they ended up hanging in Austin hock shops for dope cash. Shannon arranged Ferguson's first and only stab at rehab. The defiant Ferguson withstood only three days of such nonsense.

Ferguson was also bassist to both Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan, before Shannon. Though Ferguson's career may have disintegrated by way of his allegiance to heroin, he remained savagely witty and cool, a bittersweet sage among plentiful admirers. Shannon never possessed such charisma, and he bottomed out harder than Keith ever did.

Born in Tucson in 1946, Shannon moved to West Texas when he was nine, growing up primarily in Dumas, where there existed no black folk. There wasn't even a wrong side of the tracks.

"They simply weren't allowed," Shannon says. "I guess I never gave it much thought back then. I was only l5. If they drove by, the cops would escort them through town. You'd hear some Jimmy Reed and Sam Cooke on the radio. But since there were no blacks in Dumas, I had little exposure to black music."

He'd thankfully gotten his first blast of rock and roll in Tucson. He was a little kid when, on the way home from school one day, he heard "Good Golly Miss Molly" on the car radio. "It shot electricity through me," Shannon recalls. "The hairs stood up on me."

Shannon began making a living playing music when he was in high school. Like most bass players, he began on guitar in a local Dumas band of 15-year-olds called The Avengers. On Shannon's bedroom dresser, beneath glass, is a showcard for a 1962 Avengers gig at the local picture show, where they shared a bill with Where the Boys Are. They played Ventures, Duane Eddy, and "The Limbo." They loved twang guitarist Lonnie Mack, but felt his repertoire was above their heads.

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