Jimmie Vaughan: Powerful Stuff
Originally published in Guitar World, July 2010
As he releases his first new album in nine years, Jimmie Vaughan celebrates the music he loves and remembers the brother he lost 20 years ago.
It's been nine years since Jimmie Vaughan released his last album, 2001’s Do You Get the Blues? But when it came time to record his new Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites, Vaughan, who produced the album himself, didn’t have to think long about the sound he wanted to create with it.
“I wanted the dirt and the fun to be there, because that’s what made me fall in love with music when I was a teenager,” Vaughan says. “The audiophile freaks may hate this, because it sounds like a jukebox—it’s all raw, made with tube and tape, and nothing’s pristine. I’m just trying to capture what I hear in my head. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do.”
That’s a significant statement, considering that Vaughan has spent the past four decades playing and keeping alive the raw and authentic blues-rock that is a signature of the Austin, Texas, scene. Many people credit Vaughan’s younger brother, the late Stevie Ray, with helping that city become known far and wide as the southwest’s premier electric blues town. But it was Jimmie who helped advance Austin’s musical culture in the Seventies and Eighties as a member of the critically acclaimed Fabulous Thunderbirds. And it was Jimmie who inspired Stevie to try his hand at the guitar.
Jimmie always gave his little brother a lot to look up to. At 16, the elder Vaughan was flashing his chops in Dallas’ most popular band, the Chessmen, featuring drummer Doyle Bramhall. They even opened for Jimi Hendrix, who must have been surprised to see a white Texan teen copping his licks note for note. Of course, that’s nothing compared to what blues titan Freddie King would have thought if he ever stumbled on the kid who played around town billed as “Freddie King Jr.” “I could play all his songs,” Jimmie once recalled. “But I couldn’t sing any of them.”
Getting ever deeper into the blues, Jimmie moved to Austin with his band Texas Storm in 1969, and helped to kick-start a vibrant scene there. When Stevie arrived to become Jimmie’s bassist, no one could have predicted that he would eventually be the guy to make the world take notice of what was going on in this Texas college town.
Jimmie’s Fabulous Thunderbirds became the bedrock of Austin’s blues world, serving as the house band for the great club Antone’s. After sharing the stage with countless blues greats, including Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and the three Kings of the blues, Freddie, Albert and B.B., Jimmie and the T-Birds seemed destined to be Austin’s first great blues export. But Stevie broke big first with his 1983 debut, Texas Flood. Ironically, his success paved the way for the T-Birds’ breakthrough hit, 1986’s “Tuff Enough.” Two years later, the band achieved mainstream success when its song “Powerful Stuff” was featured on the multi-Platinum soundtrack to the film Cocktail.
After leaving the T-Birds in 1989, Jimmie had one piece of unfinished business before launching a solo career: recording a long-anticipated album with Stevie. The brothers cut Family Style in 1990. The release should have been a triumph, but Stevie was killed two months beforehand, and the celebration became a memorial.
After taking a couple of years off, Jimmie finally made his solo debut with 1994’s Strange Pleasure. The album contained “Six Strings Down,” Jimmie’s acoustic lament for his brother, but the overriding theme was triumph over grief. It made a strong statement about the need to pick yourself up and keep moving after disaster strikes. “We all have to do that every day,” Vaughan says. “We don’t go the other way, because we just can’t.”
Sixteen years after its release, Strange Pleasure stands up as a modern blues masterpiece. The strength of the album’s songwriting was highlighted when classic rock hit machine Steve Miller covered three of its songs on Bingo!, his new album and first studio recording in 17 years.
On Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites, Vaughan turned to some of his favorite blues and R&B songs from a lifetime of musical devotion. “It’s almost harder to do other people’s songs, because you’re setting yourself up to feel like you’re failing after years of hearing something as an ideal,” he says. “You can’t nail it as well as they did, and I hold myself to a high standard. But I tried to just have fun playing music I love.”