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.
Shannon moved to Dallas after high school, joining soul cover band New Breed in 1966. They played now-forgotten discotheques where go-go girls danced in cages, with names such as Phantasmagoria, The Four Seasons, and The Fog. "Back then you were expected to play soul music at every club," Shannon explains. "I tell younger musicians today you gotta get out and play what everybody else has already done, draw from different influences in a big melting pot--it's the best training."
Shannon discovered soul music in the Big D--especially Les Watson and the Panthers, an all-black band that played Motown covers. Their bass player, Willie Weeks, became his musical role model and pal. A funk-R&B session musician in the '70s, Weeks played bass on Donny Hathaway Live at the Bitter End, an elite musician's favorite, which Shannon calls "one of the best records ever made." He and Vaughan used to listen to it for hours, captivated by its rhythm section. (Today, Willie Weeks plays on Vince Gill and Wynonna Judd records.)
New Breed was managed by a gangster whose name Shannon still prefers not to mention. Uncle John Turner, the brilliant drummer with whom Shannon would team up for his next three bands, was in New Breed, which changed its name to The Young Lads.
The long-forgotten Fog was the Dallas site of the two most significant meetings of Shannon's career--where he first met Winter, and then, a decade later, where he encountered Vaughan. "Johnny sat in with the band, and I was blown away," Shannon says. "I thought he was beautiful. He came in with long white hair, incredible stage presence. I'd never seen an albino before."
Uncle John had known Winter since his childhood in Beaumont, and he left New Breed to join Winter in Houston. As soon as they needed a new bass, Shannon moved to Houston. He had no idea whence the blues came until meeting Winter.
"I'd heard Cream and saw the name Robert Johnson or Albert King under a song, figuring that must be a friend of theirs," he explains. "I had no idea until I joined Johnny Winter, whose apartment went wall-to-wall with blues records. He sat me down and played me everything, all the way back to field hollers--which we did in one of our songs ["Fast Life Rider" on Second Winter]."
Thus began the seminal power trio that became The Progressive Blues Experiment in 1968. "To survive, we were playing cover songs, with Winter singing 'By the Time I Get To Phoenix,' whatever was on the charts to make a livin'. Then we started doin' more Hendrix stuff. Jimi Hendrix changed me forever, the biggest influence of my life, period.
"The best concert I've ever seen, to this day, was Hendrix in Houston. Johnny, Uncle John, and I sat out there in the audience like everyone else. He was so graceful, kind of like he was less than a god but more than a man. On the first record where you hear all that stuff backwards--he was doin' it live and makin' it work. Johnny kept sayin', 'Nobody could be this good.' It was like seein' some angel."
Shannon keeps a bass in the closet that Hendrix played twice, and although Winter later jammed with Hendrix, Shannon never got to perform with him. He had to make do playing with Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Albert and B.B. King, and Muddy Waters.
"It was almost blasphemy back then to attempt Hendrix. You had to have a hell of a lot of balls, like walkin' through sacred burial grounds," Shannon says. "Just like Stevie could, Johnny could get tones out of his amp that were intuitive, and play the shit out of it. People take it for granted now, but back then it was a shock."
Shannon wore Nehru shirts and beads; he was immersed in hippie culture, playing the Love Street Light Circus in the Montrose district, which was Houston's Haight-Ashbury. "We played this gay club, all guys," he recalls. "They hired us 'cause they liked our roadie, this little blond-haired, good-lookin' kid. They hated us."
The trio had a calling higher than playing covers. "We'd be in a motel room after a gig doing blues, what we liked to do. And Uncle John said, 'Man, we oughta just play blues. Look at all these guys who can't do it.'"
Shannon was turned off by most rock bands, like Canned Heat or Quicksilver Messenger Service. "They weren't worth shit," he explains. "And Johnny'd sit there playing, one of the greatest slide players who ever lived. Uncle John had to talk Johnny into it, because Johnny was afraid we wouldn't get any work. Which at first was true. Uncle John and I were sleeping on floors. Johnny at least had a girlfriend with a job and an apartment."
Winter's liner notes on 1986's 3rd Degree reunion album proclaim that if it weren't for Uncle John and Shannon, and the sacrifices they made during six impoverished months, he would never have emerged. They practiced at Uncle John's mother's beauty shop. "Those guys, if they hadn't done that, nobody would ever have heard of me or known that I was a blues guitar player," wrote Winter.
Uncle John was the thinker in the band, naming them The Progressive Blues Experiment. "It was Uncle John's idea, and Johnny'd tell you the same thing. He was the brains," Shannon confirms.
"Mean Town Blues," Winter's finest composition/shoulda-been hit, reflected hard times in Dallas. Several of Winter's songs of this time contain bitter lyrics about his home state, which he left forever in 1969. Take the solo National Steel guitar piece, "Dallas":
Goin' back to Dallas
Take my razor and my gun
So much shit in Texas
Bound to step in some
The Progressive Blues Experiment album was recorded for some huckster named Bill Josey, now deceased, before they even had a record deal. A bona fide masterpiece, they recorded it live in two afternoons on a two-track machine at the Vulcan Gas Company, a psychedelic ballroom in Austin. But nothing happened after it was recorded; the album just sat there. Josey sold it a year later, after Winter had been signed to Columbia.
"We never made a penny off of it to this day," Shannon says. "Johnny has no rights to that record, not even publishing to my knowledge."
A tiny article in Rolling Stone praising Winter then appeared, attracting New York entrepreneur Steve Paul. A wealthy New York bon vivant, Paul owned the trendsetting Manhattan club The Scene. He also managed Tiny Tim, another effeminate-looking male parody, who, like Johnny Winter, experienced his first taste of success at lesbian clubs. The idea of an albino super guitarist prompted a trip to Texas, where he signed Winter in early 1969.
"It's so strange when you hear about overnight success," Shannon says. "But literally overnight, Uncle John and I packed our foot lockers, everything we owned, and caught a plane the next day to New York. I was 21 and moved to a big mansion in upstate New York set up by Steve Paul, one of the weirdest people I ever met.
"I remember getting off the plane in New York, where two beautiful girls were waiting, Eleanor and Jenette. They were big-time groupies, girlfriends of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. They would have nothing to do with anyone who wasn't a musician. So here we were, these three hicks from Texas--which is what we were, man. I ended up with Eleanor; she became my girlfriend for a while. They showed us what clothes to buy, like bell-bottoms, and got us shag haircuts. They laughed at our twang, but it was their mission to develop us, let us know what was hip."
The groupies smoothed the path into rock society. Ferguson came up to live at the mansion awhile, shacking up with Jenette. Within weeks, Columbia guru Clive Davis signed Winter's power trio to Columbia for $600,000--at the time the biggest record signing in history. "They signed it in my bedroom in the mansion, Johnny and Clive Davis," Shannon recalls, "smiling with these papers in front of 'em."
Winter and Steve Paul got their cut of the advance, while Shannon and Uncle John went to $500-per-week retainers, with clothing perks. "It was such a magical time, everything fell together perfectly. We started playing big concerts as the record came out. It was the era of the Great Guitar Player, and this Texas albino who could play the shit outta guitar and sing great was gonna be next."
The first Columbia record, Johnny Winter, made the Top 40, but Imperial Records released The Progressive Blues Experiment at the same time, confusing people. Winter scored no Top 40 singles, as had immediate predecessors such as Hendrix and Cream.
Pop festivals were common in most big cities throughout 1969, so when Winter and his band were booked to play Woodstock, they shrugged it off as just another show. "Nobody could have realized the significance at the time," Shannon recalls. "We had to come in by helicopter. I'll never forget this ocean of people, as far back as you could see. You get down, there's babies being born, it was like a city. We stayed high most of the time." Johnny's brother Edgar joined the band at Woodstock, where they plugged into amps already onstage without sound checks.
After Second Winter, the only three-sided vinyl LP in history (the fourth side remained blank), was released in October 1969, Johnny had a hard time writing songs. Steve Paul also managed the McCoys, who lived at another house on the estate where they practiced. The McCoys' super-guitarist, Rick Derringer, wrote savagely funky material. Steve Paul pressured Johnny to get with the band, whose biggest early hit had been "Hang On Sloopy." "A blind man coulda seen it comin'," says Shannon. "Johnny'd start goin' over there, jammin' and stuff. Johnny'd said things earlier, like, 'We gotta do a new record, but I don't have any new songs, I'd hate to let y'all go, I hope we can pull this all together.'
"Uncle John and I were let go. It wasn't so much a shock as a very big disappointment. I was madly in love with this girl Susan, a real high-class girl from Buffalo. I had all this success around me. She wasn't even a groupie, that's what I dug about her; she was an executive with Neiman Marcus. All of a sudden I wasn't a star, and she dropped me, which hurt as bad as losing the gig. It was a devastating double-whammy."
Shannon and Uncle John were dismissed with only $2,000 compensation apiece. Winter's new band, Johnny Winter And, featuring Rick Derringer, became one of the hottest concert tickets in America, often touring with Edgar Winter's White Trash, soon to be even bigger. Meanwhile, Shannon and Turner joined a minor San Francisco-area band called Krackerjack. "It hurt a lot, considering I suffered through the hard times," Shannon explains. "But I love Johnny to this day; we're still tight. Johnny and Edgar are geniuses, as musicians and in IQ."
Upon his dismissal from Winter's comet, Shannon's life began a dramatic plunge. He feels no need to keep it secret. In Krackerjack, "we starved our asses off out in California, so we moved back down to Austin. That's when I started shooting crystal meth. A poly-drug abuser. And here comes the hard part of my story. In a year and a half, I got so screwed up and pathetic, I lost enough weight to look like a skeleton. I began missing gigs. I alienated myself from friends and all the good people in my life. Began hanging out with dealers and hardcore criminals who burglarized drugstores then came over to my place. It was the sickest time of my life."
Shannon briefly left Austin for Dallas. He returned to his old stomping grounds at the Fog--where, once more, he heard "this incredible guitar player" on stage. When he looked up, Shannon caught a glimpse of a scrawny 14-year-old kid named Stevie Ray Vaughan.
"He was so humble and meek," Shannon remembers. "All these older musicians blew him off, and I'm saying, 'God, he's better than all these guys.' He and I hit it off and I told him, 'Man, you're great.' Stevie has said in a lot of interviews, he remembered that night, 'cause I was the only person who talked to him."
For a moment in the early '70s, Shannon and Vaughan briefly played in a band called Blackbird, living in the same duplex. "We talked about spiritual things, got high together, all that shit."
But then things got worse for Shannon. "I'd stay up five days without sleep. I remember one night getting ready to play. So I did a shot and just blacked out. They found me with the rig hanging out of my arm. I didn't wake up for three days, while friends shook me. None of us thought we could die back then. But I got busted and thrown in jail, ending up with two years' probation."
As a provision of probation, Shannon spent four of the most humiliating months he had ever experienced in a San Antonio rehab center, where he was treated with Valium. "Nowadays you hear about rehab every day on TV; it's accepted. Back then it wasn't--it was a disgrace. People looked at you like you were pathetic, had no will power. Even people who were doing drugs looked down on me."
Shannon kept rotating between short jail terms and probation, failing urine tests, unable to remain straight. For a while he held down the bass for an Austin group called The Fools, but not for long. His next jail term released him to a halfway house for four months, where he was introduced to AA, whose methods he first rejected.
"I was young, I got lost, I didn't mean harm to anybody," he says. "But who really helped was an old, gray-haired AA man named Don Herwick, who saw some goodness in me. I owe my life to this guy. He spoke to judges, and they'd give me another chance. Then I'd get busted again. Once for pot, spending 66 days in jail, the whole time being told I'd be in for 10 years. My probation officer said, 'I'm fed up with you, you're the worst person in my caseload out of a hundred people.' I was in Travis County jail--this windowless iron tank with killers, rapists, armed robbers. I used psychology to avoid fights, only got beat up once. But I got by 'cause people would say, 'Man, you really played Woodstock?' There was an article in the Austin American-Statesman about my downfall, which inmates read."
Shannon's brokenhearted parents were then living in Amarillo, clueless as to Tommy's whereabouts for years. "I eventually ended up on this 'farm' out in Buda for over a year, where derelicts were sent. Halfway houses wouldn't have me, considered me hopeless. I was the only young guy amongst all these old guys they'd find under the bridge. It was hell."
A genuine freak, Shannon could relate to no one--the generation gap stood firm even among dust-bowl derelicts. He'd pour concrete, pull nails out of wood. He had no money, lost every friend he'd once had, couldn't even buy candy or cigarettes at the commissary. No girls, no music, no drugs. "I'd had my '62 jazz bass, which Hendrix had played, out there at the farm for a year under the bed. I only pulled it out once, looked at it, broke down and cried. But I didn't kill myself."
When Shannon was freed from the farm, his probation stipulated he couldn't join a band or even play bass--the court automatically associated music with drug abuse. Shannon's bricklayer cousin took pity on him, teaching him the trade. He laid bricks and rocks for a year and a half. "It ate at me every moment of my life that I wasn't playin'," Shannon says. "My hands had mortar sores all over 'em. I'd go to the clubs to see my old friends, and they'd ignore me. I went a couple years without bein' with a girl."
After seven years at rock bottom--laying rocks without playing--Shannon finally picked his bass back up at the age of 30. "Try to imagine," he asks. "Back in them days, you were considered too old to play music, unless you were somebody established like Johnny Cash."
Never formally religious, Shannon forged his own vision of spirituality. Shannon's ranch library is full of books on Buddhism, Christianity, sociology, psychology. "I try to live a spiritual life, and it's real hard. When I look at my whole life, I can see there's a thread that runs through it, which is, to me, the will of a power greater than myself."
Finally, his calloused hands bleeding, Shannon laid down his trowel in 1977. He told his cousin he was going back to music and walked off the job. He went down to Ray Henning's legendary music store in Austin and posted his name on the bulletin board: "Played with Johnny Winter."
"I was no longer of the status where I could ask for a gig in Austin," Shannon recalls. "People laughed at me and made jokes, as if I couldn't feel or hear 'em. But with my name on the bulletin board, I got into a couple of rinky-dink bands. I was basically homeless. I was still on probation, but they'd gotten off my back by then." Shannon got a call from Rocky Hill, brother of Z.Z. Top's Dusty Hill, and moved to Houston to play with him and Uncle John--and then on to a better-paying gig with Allen Haynes.
Shannon hadn't seen Vaughan for years--until one night in 1980, when the guitarist was playing Rockefellers in Houston with Double Trouble. At that point, the band featured Vaughan, drummer Chris Layton, and bass player Jackie Newhouse.
"I walked in and had a revelation: This is where I belong," Shannon says. "I knew it. After their set, we hugged, and I told him, 'I belong in this band, I belong playing with you.' Normally, that's not the way to approach somebody. You just don't go up and say, 'Fire the bass player; let me play.' But that's how strong I felt. I had no shame."
Shannon sat in with Stevie and Layton a few more times in Houston. Then he got a phone call to join Double Trouble in 1980. Starting at $200 a week, traveling the country in a milk truck, Shannon spent nine full years with Vaughan, till the day he died. "You'd think I had enough of it, but Stevie and I were doin' cocaine and alcohol. Yet good things started happenin' for us. We met Jackson Browne, who was blown away, the night we did the Montreux Festival. He gave us his studio free to do basic tracks on Texas Flood. David Bowie was there, whom Stevie almost played with. That shows what kind of person Stevie was. We'd made our record, but hadn't yet sold it. Stevie had this incredible opportunity to go from ridin' around in a milk truck to limos with Bowie. He was pushed into it by management and said OK. They rehearsed, but the night before leaving, he said, 'I just can't.' He chose to stay with his band."
The Bowie tour was to be a year. Chances are, had he signed on with Bowie, Vaughan would never have become the Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan was soon signed through the good graces of John Hammond--history's greatest A&R producer, the man who signed Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan--who actually answered his own office phone, taking calls from both power brokers and unknown musicians.
"Working with him was the greatest honor," Shannon says of Hammond. "He talked Epic into signing us--they didn't want a blues band. They only did it because John Hammond said, 'There's something here.' Then the record took off. I'll never forget, we were touring around in our little milk truck. All of a sudden out in California, there was a line of people around the block at the club, after Texas Flood came out. And all this stuff started mushrooming. It got to a bigger level than Johnny Winter. I had everything back. Even more than before. All the girlfriends I could want, traveling in nice buses, free dope, and alcohol. Like coming out of hell, I had everything back that I wanted."
The main difference in groupies, according to Shannon, from the Woodstock era to his second shot of stardom, was that in the '60s, girls didn't mind being called groupies. By the 1980s it had a bad connotation. "Nonetheless, when I was playing with Stevie, there were lots of groupies. They just said they weren't."
Shannon and Vaughan seemed to be made out of Texas cast iron. "We had fun for years, somebody baby-sat us. But he and I both started getting real sick from over-coking and drinking. We were doing it all night and all day. Best way we figured to never have a hangover was to never stop." They eventually reached meltdown. "One night in a hotel room, we had a big ol' pile of coke. He drank Crown Royal, I drank vodka. We knew we were in trouble. We couldn't stop. We'd isolated ourselves from everybody 'cause they thought we were getting too high. But they couldn't make me and Stevie stop. And this night, we both got down on our knees and prayed together for help to stop. We knew instinctively we were violating the laws of human decency. We got back up and did some more cocaine."
Addiction is addiction. As Shannon describes his descent back into nonstop indulgence, an ashen, shell-shocked expression comes over his face. But he once again set himself up for salvation.
"When I met my wife, Kumi, I didn't realize for months that I was in love with her. I'd go out and meet a girl, be with her one night, forget about her. But I kept remembering Kumi."
Kumi Shannon comes from a military family. She never got high or drank or smoked. This amazed Tommy: She saw through the haze and liked him. "Thank God she could do that," he says. Stevie was best man at their 1986 wedding. "Shortly after that, Stevie and I got cleaned up."
The band was in Europe. "Stevie started vomiting blood. Two days later we were in his room just drinking after a gig, 'cause you don't go out hunting cocaine in Germany. And he turned white, started sweating. He went to the hospital. And we knew that was the bottom. We canceled our tour. He checked himself into Charter Lane Hospital in Georgia. I checked myself into Charter Lane in Austin the same time. It'd never work if we weren't separated. We got clean and sober. Everything changed. It was a miracle."
Shannon recites the 12-Step Program from AA, which worked for him: "You had to hit bottom, become totally powerless and helpless and full of despair before you could break through and find a life, a way out. Which comes from a power greater than yourself. Stevie was sober when he died. Four years of sobriety. We were playin' better, our ideas blossoming. I helped write 'Crossfire,' came up with that riff. I've got over 10 years of sobriety now. I'd rehabbed on my own. Cops didn't drag me in."
Having defeated his demons, Shannon met disaster once again. He was on one of a convoy of helicopters flying back to Chicago from Wisconsin's Alpine Valley Music Theater in 1990, where Vaughan opened for and played with Eric Clapton. "We got there first, and I went to my room, got a call about six in the morning that Stevie's helicopter had gone down, no survivors. The best friend I ever had in my life. Lost him and the career. But this time was different. It's strange, I had no desire to go drink or get high. Every year you get a chip for however many years you've been clean and sober. Every year I get my chip, and I get him one too, and give it to his mom."
About five years ago the Stones called Shannon when auditioning for Bill Wyman's replacement. "They flew me up first-class. I played 'Start Me Up,' 'Brown Sugar,' 'Tumbling Dice,' about 10 songs at SIR studios in New York. This is the Rolling Stones; they don't have to bullshit nobody. Some of the bass players would come in and play only one song. I was there playin' 90 minutes. I had a blast, and you could see they were having fun. Even though I didn't get the gig, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life."
As with Uncle John Turner, Shannon forged a rhythm partnership with Chris "Whipper" Layton. After SRV, they both joined the Arc Angels with noticeably younger members Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton. "The idea was to play a few gigs around town. But people packed the clubs goin' nuts. So Geffen flew down an A&R guy. We did a lot of rehearsals, did our record." A bittersweet experience, Shannon cites "internal conflicts" as having destroyed the rising band within 18 months. "If we stayed together, we'd probably be rich by now."
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At present, Shannon and Layton are like road warriors in twilight, trying to make Storyville ignite beyond its fanatic Austin base. Thirty years after playing with a white albino, Shannon's current band is fronted by black albino, Malford Milligan. "I don't like being on the road anymore," declares Shannon. "Been there, done that, seen that, so to speak. My whole idea of enjoyment is different. I'd like to do studio work. But I'll never quit playing as long as I live, that's like breathing."
His foundation comes from the '60s, when music shaped people's lives the way World War II did the previous generation: "It breaks my heart; I feel sorry for young kids today. Music is so disposable now, so totally oversaturated. It's just business. People have totally lost touch with what it's really all about, the love of music."
Still, when Shannon acknowledges a young guitarist--like the adolescent Stevie Ray, the young Winter--people should perhaps take heed. Shannon and Layton recorded an album with Kenny Wayne Shepherd. "He's 19, this guy Johnny Lang is 16, another guy in town here, Guitar Jay, I think he's 16. He's incredible--I first played with him when he was seven years old at Ann Richards' Inaugural Ball. Give 'em a chance, what do they expect of 'em at this age?" Shannon says, still taking young gunslingers seriously when few other professionals will.
"I also got to play with Clapton, the Stones, Jeff Beck, Little Richard, can you imagine that?" he marvels, like some provincial musician. I point out something that seems to elude Tommy Shannon: They also got to play with him.