By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
They were reunited in the Ardent Studios in Memphis, Skyline Studios in Manhattan, and the Dallas Sound Lab, where they recorded Family Style, an album that's almost more remarkable for what it wasn't than for what it was. It could well have been a guitar-slinger's duel, brother versus brother in the caged match of the year. But Family Style was barely a blues record at all; it was more about soul than anything, with Stevie and Jimmie playing slow and loose with the songs (only three of which they actually wrote together). Credited to The Vaughan Brothers, Family Style is the sort of disc that can be made only by musicians who share blood--you can't tell where one man stops and the other starts.
Of course, they would never tour behind the album, as they had planned: On August 27, 1990, not long after Family Style was completed, Stevie died in a helicopter crash after he and Jimmie and Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy shared a stage in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. Family Style was released the following month.
For a long time after that, Jimmie didn't know what the hell to do. He was left with the task of executing Stevie's will, and he came under fire from old friends of Stevie's who claimed his older brother was living off Stevie's leftovers. In 1991, Jimmie assembled an odds-and-sods collection of Stevie's outtakes, The Sky is Crying, and it was a perfect, loving tribute; it proved that for all his fire and flash, Stevie could play every bit as subtly as his brother. But then, in 1992, came In the Beginning, which featured a rough, less-than-stellar performance by Stevie at a small Austin club in 1980; worse, the release of the disc was marred by squabbling from musicians and businessmen who claimed Jimmie wasn't doing good business. Jack Newhouse, Stevie's bassist in 1980, claimed Jimmie wasn't paying him enough, and Chesley Milliken, Stevie's old manager, insisted he, not Jimmie, owned the performance master. It all seemed so unseemly.
Then, in short succession, came a greatest-hits package (which featured a previously unreleased--and with good reason--version of the Beatles' "Taxman"), a tribute album taken from a 1995 concert on Austin City Limits that featured Jimmie and Buddy Guy and Bonnie Raitt and others, and last year's Live at Carnegie Hall, taken from Stevie and Double Trouble's 1984 performance in the hallowed venue. And this fall, Epic Records will release a three-disc Stevie Ray boxed set filled with even more outtakes.
But those who find it disconcerting that Jimmie has released two albums since 1990 while Stevie has four miss the point: Jimmie Vaughan--who fought long and hard against some members of the Austin city council to build a statue of his brother on Town Lake, a monument that is now one of the city's top tourist attractions--may well make a little money off Stevie's recordings, but he'd rather have his brother than his brother's royalties. Indeed, after Stevie's death, Jimmie spent the next three years mourning from a distance; he withdrew for a long while, coming out of his garage long enough to play with Eric Clapton for 12 shows in February and March of 1993 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Then he spent the next year recording a record that would pay homage to Stevie: "Six Strings Down," with its references to Alpine Valley and the angels who "done called another blues stringer back home," was the centerpiece of Strange Pleasure.
Out There, though dedicated to another fallen friend--former T-Birds bassist Keith Ferguson, whose heroin habits finally killed him in May 1997--is a far more exhilarated album; a song like "The Ironic Twist," which struts like Candy Barr during happy hour at Jack Ruby's Carousel Club, epitomizes the raw stank that covers the whole disc. It's a celebration, handclaps and horns and greasy beats--the sort of record no one makes anymore, except for a kid from Oak Cliff whose body moved to Austin and whose heart stayed at home.
"Out There is just a lot more raw than Strange Pleasures," Vaughan explains. "It's more me. It's more, uh, what would be an intelligent term for 'playing shit on the deal'? That's the honest truth, but it doesn't sound right. It's dirtier, it's rawer. The last album was kind of a spiritual thing in a lot of ways. I was thinking about what all happened, and I was overwhelmed with...stuff. That's what came out. And now I'm overwhelmed with other stuff. It's more about being in love and being human and what happens if you don't...If you...It seems like no matter what you do, you can't control all this stuff. It's just like somebody told me once, you should sing about what you know about, so that's all I'm doing.