The mind's ear
Forget, for a moment, his more famous dead brother. Do not make comparisons, and do not buy into the myth that to celebrate one you must tear down the other. Do not think that just because one brother sold hundreds of thousands of records and the other mere thousands that it means anything. To compare and contrast is a famous, familiar pastime--one filled in every space with a thousand notes, one is about nothing but the space in between, and so on and so forth--but it ultimately serves no purpose. They were brothers, yes, raised on the same Oak Cliff diet of the Nightcaps and Freddie King and 1960s AM radio. But they were also singular men who went their own ways, followed their own hearts, found their own voices, grew up and then apart only to come together in the months just before one died and sent the other on his way again.
Jimmie Vaughan, the older brother long ago dwarfed by the myth of his sibling, doesn't need to stand in Stevie Ray's spotlight--or his shadow--to make his case as one of the few blues guitarists around worth a damn. He has two superb records of his own to speak for him; he has a handful of soundtrack singles and one-off guest shots and a fistful of Fabulous Thunderbirds albums that do his bidding. He's the most quiet guitar hero of them all--releasing albums every four years and making music that never gets above a loud whisper. Indeed, the real star of his records is a Hammond B-3 player named Bill Willis, who, once upon a very long time ago, played bass with a blues myth named Freddie King, one of Jimmie's earliest idols.
Only a few weeks ago, Vaughan released Out There, his second solo album of this decade and his lifetime--though you might not know it; it has received so little attention, it seems there's a conspiracy to ignore the thing. Perhaps the reason for this has to do with the passage of time: Unlike his 1994 debut Strange Weather, his new release does not feature a song about his dead brother, and Jimmie, now a veteran of his own solo tours, is no longer a sideman-turned-frontman novelty item. More likely it's the record itself, which is not exactly made of the stuff of pop radio or sexy feature stories. Titled Out There, it's actually more in here, the ultra sound a man makes when he listens to the old echoes rattling around inside his head and makes the reverberations tangible.
Out There is sly and sexy, a romp through the soul '60s in sharkskin shoes and silken shirts and pleated black pants; it's the soundtrack to a burlesque show and a Stax/Volt revue all at once, a bump-and-grind joyride down memory lane in the back of one of those vintage cars Jimmie spends so much time restoring at home in Austin. It's boogie-woogie and back-porch, and Vaughan plays guitar like a man who has only so many notes in him and doesn't want to waste a single one, so he doles them out, teasing and pleasing. That he barely plays guitar at all on the title track, laying down a quiet rhythm while Willis and drummer George Rains keep the beat in their back pockets, says it all.
"The Hammond organ is tubes and wood, and it makes this human sound," Vaughan says. "It sort of moans. It's like it's alive. And then you got Bill Willis, who plays the bass on it, and I just dig it. That's what I dig. I can't help it. I used to like it when I first started listening to that stuff when I was 15 or 16...The space is just as important as the music. That sounds funny to somebody who's not a musician, I guess, but that's my way of thinking. I grew up in the '50s and '60s, and music used to have something to do with phrasing and space.
"See, when you play a bunch of stuff and then you stop and leave some space, that's when your mind absorbs and gets the message. So if you just start playing when the count starts and play all the way through and then stop, there's no feel time," he says, laughing. "It sounds so corny to talk about music, because it's hard to be articulate. But we'll try anyway."
The 47-year-old Vaughan has spent a lifetime in rock and roll: His 1966 tax return shows he made $1,200 the year he turned 15. Back then, he was a member of the Chessmen, perhaps the most legendary of all Dallas bands from that era, having released only a handful of brilliant protopunk singles. They were a garage-rock band playing British Invasion blues, the sound of Texas-born teens pretending to be Jeff Beck pretending to be Freddie King.
"When I was 15, I didn't know the difference between Jeff Beck and Freddie King," he says. "One guy had a bigger amp, and that was Freddie. To me that stuff was really the same thing, until I really started getting into it. But when the Chessmen called me up, it was, get a big amp and let's go to town. And about that time, Hendrix came out, and it was like Muddy Waters' illegitimate stepchild or something--from Mars. To me, it's all the same thing."
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.
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.
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