The mind's ear

Jimmie Vaughan is two albums into a solo career he didn't necessarily want

Vaughan may have a problem talking about music, but he has no difficulty remembering when he first heard it or why he makes it. He easily, happily talks of the first songs that moved him--the morning he heard Booker T. and the MGs' "Green Onions" while racing to get to school, and the nights spent loitering outside the Empire Ballroom waiting to catch a glimpse of Aaron "T-Bone" Walker or Lowell Fulson or B.B. King. He recalls the hours spent poring over the Nightcaps' "Wine, Wine, Wine," and the time he crawled into the dumpster behind NorthPark Mall and found a copy of "Purple Haze" that Somethin' Else host Ron Chapman had thrown out. And he remembers that night in Houston when a twentysomething Steve Miller, himself a child of Dallas, taught a 15-year-old Jimmie Vaughan what not to play on the guitar.

Vaughan grew up knee-deep in the blues: This city was his classroom, and he was a most zealous student.

"The Nightcaps--that was the first album I ever bought," he says of the white-boy R&B band that tore up Greenville Avenue during the late 1950s and early '60s. A certain giddiness creeps into his voice. "I learned how to play lead and rhythm and bass and drums off that record practically. That was the shit there--'Wine, Wine, Wine.' It had--and it's hard to say exactly what it is--but it had just a feeling."

Jimmie and Stevie, three years his brother's junior, were guitarists before they were readers; the picture on the back of 1990's Family Style--the two young boys cradling their instruments, Stevie looking particularly small behind his--has become the Vaughan brothers' legacy. It was, of course, Jimmie who struck out on his own first, playing in bands around Oak Cliff; the Chessmen was his first paying gig, but there were plenty of others before that. And it was Jimmie who first moved to Austin in 1970, his little brother following closely behind.

It appeared from the beginning that Vaughan never wanted the role of frontman; if Stevie dreamed of one day becoming larger than life, burning brightest in the spotlight, then Jimmie was comfortable standing just off the side in the shadows. When he joined Doyle Bramhall in the Chessmen, Jimmie was content to play lead guitar. Same thing happened a decade later in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, when Kim Wilson took control of the microphone and, later, the band itself. Vaughan was uncomfortable with the sound of his own voice--he preferred to let the guitar do his singing for him--so he handed the keys to others and let them drive the rest of the way while he just gave directions.

In the end, of course, he proved the most valuable player in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. When Jimmie left the band in 1990 to pursue his own ambitions, Wilson carried on without him--and it took two guitarists to replace Vaughan. The records that followed were pale imitations of what had come before; where the T-Birds had once shuffled along at a casual pace, they now sound almost histrionic, as though too much can make up for not enough. Jimmie kept the beat; his replacements--Duke Robillard and Kid Bingham--lost it forever. They seemed to misunderstand the one thing that Jimmie learned long ago, that the best blues guitarists don't play songs--they just follow them.

"Like, everybody gets a guitar--and especially country guys--and they learn licks: 'Hey, man, you heard this one?'" Vaughan says of his playing style. "Everybody does a little bit of that, I guess. But licks aren't connected. They're just like single words with no meaning. I like to think of [music] like a paragraph or a sentence with a period. I noticed that about the guys I liked. I noticed that about people that played with feeling. I noticed that about Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Albert Collins and Gatemouth Brown and T-Bone Walker and Freddie King and Eric Clapton--my heroes. I would listen to them and jazz guys too, like Gene Ammons on tenor sax...It would sound like when they started playing on a song, they knew what they were going to do at the end, but how could they? So I was always interested in all that.

"I think--and this is just my opinion, because I don't know nothin'--I think they listened to their mind's ear. You've heard about the mind's eye, and it's the same thing with a mind's ear. It tells you what to play. You gotta cancel out all the other shit. You gotta cancel out what you heard the other guys play and try to listen to your own deal, and you just develop that, I guess. And then you have guys, you know, it just pours out of them."

On June 16, 1990, in Fort Hood, Vaughan left the Thunderbirds. He had grown up in the touring bus, driving up and down the interstate, and the grueling lifestyle exhausted him. He insisted there was no ill will between himself and his bandmates, but he wasn't having any fun anymore. So he quit and sought out his brother, now clean and sober and ready to pick up where they left off 20 years before, when Jimmie and Stevie left Big Jim and Martha's house in Oak Cliff and headed south on I-35.

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