Jimmie Vaughan's Got No Blues At All

Jimmie Vaughan is the blues guitarist who reinvented "less is more." On his website bio, younger brother Stevie is quoted as saying, "I play probably 80 [percent] of what I can play. Jimmie plays one percent of what he knows. He can play anything."

This may be a terrible question to ask a lifelong bluesman, but why only blues?

"I play blues and rock 'n' roll," he responds. "People call it different stuff. I just play what I like, what I want to hear myself."

The most profound original track of Vaughan's later career is "Six Strings Down" (that, and "Boom-Bapa-Boom"). Its refrain, "Heaven done called another blues stringer back home," from his 1995 album, Strange Pleasure, is a gospel eulogy to his lost brother, who people love even more as time marches on. But for Vaughan, like most blues musicians, the future is mainly about the glorious past.

"I listen to jazz records from 1959," he says. "You can't have jazz without the blues; they're all connected. Gene Ammons and Willis Jackson, that's who I like. I listen to old gypsy records, flamenco, Sabicas, Nino Ricardo. I listen to Segovia—don't try to play like that, but it inspires me. I also like country music—George Jones, Webb Pierce."

Personally, I'd like to hear Vaughan stretch out and do a doo-wop album, a gospel album along the lines of "Six Strings Down" or a country album of some kind. Take some bigger chances. But that's a selfish, unfair request. You can't argue with his own refrain: "I just don't feel 'country.' I play what I like."

Approaching 59, Vaughan still looks like a movie star, with a perfect black hairline, "a longtime avatar of retro cool." He has always dressed as a blues dignitary, right down to the way that fine fabric hangs down over his boot heels. No one dressed like that since the heyday of Chess Records in Chicago in the 1950s—until the Fabulous Thunderbirds brought the style back at the tail end of the 1970s. Since then, it has become the standard wardrobe for a thousand blues bands. Originally, it was the way former sharecroppers "dressed up the blues," so they wouldn't be thought of as raggedy winos.

So here comes a fourth CD under his name, Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites, on Shout Factory, out this very week. Again, Vaughan is peerless in his taste and hasn't played a wrong note in 40 years. The album has lots of space and air between the instruments. It's dry, with little reverb, even on vocals, and has a short blues "conversation" with Lou Ann Barton. A Texas-shufflin' rhythm section with horns, cherry-picked from the Antone's fraternity—Austin-based musicians who let few into their tight professional clique. Except, of course, the members of Vaughan's touring band, which includes Providence-based Doug James. James is the best baritone sax player and arranger in the business.

A few years ago, Vaughan signed on to do a book with David Ritz, autobiographical collaborator of the R&B pioneers. But then he decided he didn't want to spill it. Or maybe his memories are just like his playing—heavy on groove and tone, but with dignified restraint. Why contribute to the endless junk heap of celebrity biographies? There are virtues to privacy, and you won't find him on Twitter.

"I just worked on it a little while," he says. "Didn't want to do it anymore. That's not what I do, is it? It's not that I have a bad or particularly weird or dark life. I mean, how would you like to have a book revealing everything about you?"

Actually, there have been a few. But Vaughan sums up his present as such: "I'm happily married. I've got twins. I really enjoy being with my family, playing guitar all the time, driving around in [classic custom] cars. I have a good life."

He's built five cars over the last 30 years. It takes at least five years for him to build one.

"It's not like transportation," he says. "It's art you can drive to the store. You nickel-and-dime it as you go along. They never get finished."

But Vaughan himself is working toward a happy ending.

"In the '80s," he says, "I was completely wild and out of my mind, running around the country. I'm not the same guy I used to be."

So now he'll raise his kids in Austin, and stay there, "unless they run me out of town."

Texas knighthood would be more likely.

"Thank goodness we don't have that," he says, democratically.

Well, we don't have knighthoods here, like they do in the land of King Arthur (Sir Mick, Dame Elton). But we do erect statues to musicians we've lost in air disasters—like Buddy Holly in Lubbock, and Jimmie's brother, Stevie, in Austin. There's plenty room in Texas for a few more, and I say put one honoring Jimmie Vaughan up now, in the State Capitol. (He already has Fender and Gretsch guitars named after him, and probably a car or two.) They should put up statues for the other founding Thunderbirds too, especially Keith Ferguson, and even one for drummer Mike Buck. Hell, they should rename Austin-Bergstrom International Airport for Keith Ferguson to make up for all the hell they gave him passing through customs, so that he finally couldn't tour outside of Texas. I'm going to start calling it Ferguson Airport from now on, until it catches on. And put up a statue of Lou Ann Barton while they're at it, somewhere near the Capitol.

There's plenty of reason: The Fab T-Birds spearheaded a blues revival 35 years ago that may only recently have started to wane. It's been debated as to whether blues is in some kind of a slump, like it was in the 1970s before the T-Birds. Most blues musicians are barely working, but then again, so goes the whole economy. If it is in a slump, Vaughan, with his robust touring schedule, is not aware of it.

"I totally ignore the whole music business," he says. "I don't even care what they do. If somebody puts out a record I like or I get excited about a musician, that's an exception."

Ignoring the music business concurs with every serious musician or person who loves music, for the past 30 years. But they do savor their Grammy nominations when they get them, and keep an eye on concert grosses in Pollstar.

Although we live in a space-time continuum that may be of one mind, Jimmie Vaughan might be considered a third-generation bluesman. He is now at the age that Muddy Waters or Gatemouth Brown, the second generation of blues icons, were when he first saw them during his youth in Dallas, or when he played with them at Antone's in Austin.

How might his life and career parallel with Muddy, Gatemouth or John Lee Hooker now that he's the same age they were then?

"Like Pee Wee Crayton said, 'We better get the gettin' while the gettin's good,'" he says. "I was fortunate enough to be on the tail end of that stuff, was able to see a lotta people play in Dallas that I hold up high. But they're still alive in my world."

Vaughan has no fear of having to face down the Disney channel and its attendant music: "My kids don't watch TV. We just keep it off." But inevitably, Vaughan's young kids may listen to Disney radio or something that clashes with everything he holds sacred about music. Then what?

"They have little guitars and they're starting to ask questions," he says. "I play all the time and if I get too loud, they go in the other room and close the door. If they ever want lessons, I would love to teach them."

Almost like a mantra these days, Jimmie Vaughan repeats that he loves the life he lives and he lives the life he loves. He supports Ron Paul, and posts the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights on his website.

"When you get older, you start appreciating things," he says. "I'm a fan of the Constitution. I started reading about our country and remembered one old-lady school teacher in Dallas reading us The Bill of Rights. It made me feel good. I was proud. I enjoy freedom. I like liberty."

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Josh Alan Friedman