By Richard Skanse
When Jimmie Vaughan says “the guitar’s been good to me,” consider it an understatement.
Vaughan wasn’t yet 20 years old when his band the Chessmen landed a warm-up gig for Jimi Hendrix one night in Dallas. Over the course of the three decades and change since, he’s shared the stage with virtually every great blues guitarist of the last half century. Eric Clapton has sung his praises and traded licks with him on numerous occasions, and Vaughan’s younger brother Stevie Ray cited him as his primary influence. Even the late, great Muddy Waters knew Vaughan was the real deal; on hearing Vaughan run through some slide licks during a show at Austin’s Antone’s one night, Waters implored on the younger guitarist to make sure he kept it up after he was gone, so people could hear how it was done right.
And yet even after all that, Vaughan says he still gets star-struck in the presence of greatness, even when the greats treat him as equal company.
“When I was starting out in Dallas, if you had told me I was going to meet and play with B.B. King and Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters and Lonnie Mack and Albert Collins and all those guys that came to Antone’s, I would have told you that you were a liar,” Vaughan laughs. “I could have never imagined that I would get to meet them. I just liked what they did when I heard them on records, and I wanted to be like that when I grew up.”
By this point in his career, Vaughan is very much “like” his heroes; but even though he just turned 50 this summer, the jury is still out on whether or not he ever did grow up. Grown ups — at least the everyday types — don’t usually get to indulge in not one but two of their favorite teenage passions — guitars and hot-rods. Vaughan is known in some circles as much for his collection of show-quality customized classic cars as for his guitar chops. He still wears his hair in the fashion of a rockabilly gangster, and really doesn’t look a whole lot different than he did on the cover of the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ 1979 debut album (though his name’s changed, having been misprinted then as “Jimmy Vaughan.”)
Vaughan left the Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1990 — the same year he made his singing debut on the Family Style album with his brother and lost Stevie Ray to a fatal helicopter crash. He would not begin his solo recording career in earnest until four years later with the release of Strange Pleasure, which featured “Six String Down,” a stunning tribute to his brother. Out There followed in 1998, and now three years later — just ahead of schedule — he’s released the best of the bunch, the evocatively titled Do You Get the Blues? Highlights of the album include “Without You,” a slow-burner penned by his son, a pair of scorching duets with Lou Ann Barton (“Power of Love” and “In the Middle of the Night”) and what may well be the best song of Vaughan’s career, an acoustic slide-driven tribute to Muddy Waters called “The Deep End.” It proves without a shadow of a doubt that Vaughan “gets” the blues; we caught up with the guitarist at his home in Austin to get to the bottom of where, exactly, he got them from.
How long have you had the title “Do You Get the Blues?” kicking around in your head?
I dreamed it. After I had made the album, I kept thinking about what I was going to call it. I didn’t want to use one of the songs because I’ve done that in the past. It’s a good thing to do, but it just didn’t seem right. So, I woke up in the middle of the night and I had dreamed it. Do You Have the Blues? was the name of it. Then I told the record company, and they got it wrong and said Do You Get the Blues?, and I thought, “That’s even better!” [Laughs] You can say, do you get it? Do you understand, or do you get them?
Was there a theme to this album, or was it more just a case of, “These are my latest songs”?
That’s more like it. I’ll get a couple of songs that I like, and then it just sort of builds from there. There’s really no plan. It happens every different way. You can be driving in the truck and all of a sudden you can get an idea. A lot of stuff happens for me in my truck, just because you’re by yourself. It’s hard to get alone these days with your own thoughts because there’s so much going on. So I like to get in my truck or in my car. I listen to a lot of jazz and a lot of records, and I’ll get inspired and I’ll go and play something. And it won’t necessarily be what I was listening to, but it will inspire me.
When you get one of those ideas, do you hear a melody or lyric line, or do you hear guitar parts?
It happens every different way, but usually it’s a melody. I hear a melody. The first song I did on this album was “Planet Bongo,” and it went from there. And that was just a melody that I heard — I heard the “boom-chic-a-boom-chic-a-boom,” and I didn’t know where it came from, and it was just kind of silly. One thing I’ve learned is not to pre-judge the stuff before you write it. If you get a crazy idea, run with it and don’t judge it, just do it. Then decide later on if you like it or not. It’s not easy. I’m not one of these guys who writes three, four songs a day. I have to really hear it.
I got a lot of really good help on this album, too. A lot of the lyrics were written by Greg Sain, who is one of the singers in my band. And Paul Ray wrote a lot too. Paul Ray is the disc jockey from KUT [90.5 in Austin]. He’s had a show on Saturday night called Twine Time for about 20 years. I pretty much came down to Austin with him 30 years ago. He’s written a lot of lyrics with me. I usually come up with a lot of the music, and every once in a while I’ll write lyrics, but I more hear the music.
One of the songs you wrote with Ray is my favorite off the album, “The Deep End.” At your recent Austin City Limits taping, you said it was inspired by Muddy Waters. Is that main slide lick original, or was that something you took from Muddy?
It’s really sort of a take off of Muddy Waters’ style. That’s what he did — “De-ne-ne-ne-ne …” I’d have to say that’s Muddy Waters’ style. But I actually didn’t do that until later. I wrote the song first — I had the chorus, “Off the deep end baby/and the water’s fine,” and then Paul wrote the verses, and at the end I put slide guitar on it. I don’t know why the stuff comes the way it does. But I really like that. I thought, “The deep end? Muddy Waters!”
Do you play much slide?
Not really. I used to play when I was in the T-Birds. We’d do like Earl Hooker and Elmore James and Muddy Waters kind of stuff. And then I got into trying to play steel guitar for awhile, and I was absolute terrible at that. And I thought, “You need to just try and play the guitar, and quite trying to be so versatile.”
There’s another song on here, “Without You,” that your son Tyrone wrote. Was that one you heard and wanted, or did you go to him and say, “Son, write me a song”?
No, he wrote it and he brought it in. He’ll come over here once in a while and play me his new songs. He came over here one night and played me about 15 or 20 songs that he’d written in a row, and I said, “Man, I sure would like to do some of those, or one or two of them, or we should write some together.” He already had that one, and there you go — we just did it. I thought it was a good song. I think he’s quite a songwriter.
Did you teach him guitar?
No. When he was 18 or 19 he would come over and we would play, and I would say, “Look at this, here’s what the blues guys do.” And he’d go, “No, look at this.” And I’d go, “Oh, … ok.” [Laughs] So I didn’t teach him. I tried to show him what I knew or answer some questions, but he’s pretty much self-taught.
Were you the same way?
Yeah. I learned to play off the radio, and watching guys, listening to records.
You started playing when you were around 12 or 13. How many years was it before you felt you had a style, where you’d hear somebody play something and could think, “I like that, but this is how I would do it”?
It pretty much happened right away. I used to … I would copy guys too. I would try to play like Freddie King. That’s how you learn how to play, you try to get into a guy’s style, and you kind of learn stuff by accident by doing that. And one thing leads to another, and you start to think, “Well, if I were to sit in with that guy, what could I do? Because I can’t do what he did, because it’s his.” And then I started exploring the idea of, “Well, what do I want to hear?” And when I started asking that question is when my own style kind of came out to the forefront a little bit.
Were you always drawn more to Texas and Louisiana style blues over Memphis and Chicago?
Absolutely. I listened to stuff from Chicago, but most of the Chicago guys were from down here and Mississippi and Louisiana, it seemed like. They just went to Chicago. I really always liked the Gulf Coast guys. B.B. and Albert and Freddie and Lightnin’ Hopkins — a lot of Lightnin’ Hopkins.
How would you explain to a layman the difference between Texas and Chicago blues? Is it attitude or style?
That’s a tough question. I guess you would have to say that the Texas guys play more like horn players. They sort of play more like saxophone-style lines. And the guys from Chicago, they just have sort of a different approach. But then you have guys like Freddie King who was from Dallas, or around Dallas, and moved to Chicago, and learned how to play from guys from Mississippi and then came back to Texas. That sort of gets it all mixed up. But Texas has always sort of been about guitars. I had two uncles who played guitar, and my dad had a lot of guys at his work who were guitar players. So there were a lot of guitar players around when I was a kid. One of the country guys that my dad knew had actually played with Chuck Berry on a couple of shows, so he showed me how John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry played. You’d get little tidbits here and there.
If someone wanted a crash-course in Texas blues, what five artists would you tell them to start with?
I’d say you’d have to have Lightnin’ Hopkins. And from Lightnin’, you could go backwards and get Little Sun Jackson. I’d say T-Bone Walker. And Gatemouth Brown. That’s four. And then I think you’d have to listen to a lot of the jazz guys from Houston, like Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and guys like that to really get to the roots. I mean, it’s easy to find the more current people.
Your style of playing is very different from your brother Stevie’s, and yet he used to call you one of if not his greatest influences. As an older brother, would you ever get on his case about playing too flashy?
No, no. Because early on, it was just a difference in personalities. Do you have a brother? You guys are probably a little different, but you probably like the same things too. Stevie was just … he could just do anything. If you told him “You can’t do that,” then he would do it. And he I think like me just learned from the guys he really liked and just did his own version of it. But he would really get out there and get after it. He just really loved it. I don’t think I can describe … Everybody’s different. I just like guys that play as if they’re telling a story instead of a bunch of unrelated licks that they picked up here and there.
Was the first time you played solo opening up for Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall in London, or were there warm-up gigs before that?
I guess solo, yeah. But I never did think much different whether I was playing with the T-Birds or whether I was playing on my own. It’s all kind of the same.
It was a long time before you sang, though.
Yeah, I didn’t start singing until Family Style. First time I ever sang was “White Boots.”
Why so long?
Well, I didn’t like my voice. I was listening to Bobby Blue Bland and Muddy Waters, and I thought my voice sounds like Mini Mouse compared to them. So I just won’t sing. And then when we did Family Style, Nile Rodgers said, “What are you going to sing, Jimmie?” And I said, “I don’t sing.” He said, “Well you do now. You’ve either got to sing, or go home.” [Laughs] I thank Nile for that — it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’m still trying to sing. Singing is not as natural to me as it is to play a guitar, but I like it, and every once in a while I do all right. I’m part of it. It’s truly been a challenge, and I’m still learning — as I am with the guitar too, though.
Tell me about the blues scene in Austin in the ’70s. You always hear about the cosmic cowboys and the hippies coming together at the Armadillo World Headquarters, but the blues scene was on the fringe of that, wasn’t it?
Yeah. Well, there wasn’t a blues scene. Well they didn’t actually call it a blues scene. There was a lot of guys that played great blues. There was T.D. Bell and the guys that played at Ernie’s Chicken Shack and W.C. Clark and Bill Campbell. Those were some of the first guys that I saw. And then when we started playing at the One Knite, we played there for five or six years with Angela Strehli and a bunch of different people. And then we started the T-Birds, and we started making records, we had this one song called “Down at Antone’s,” and we started going around and doing interviews and talking about Antone’s Club in Austin, and then they started saying “The Austin Blues Scene.” The Austin blues scene, it was just something in the press they started talking about, just like when they started talking about the drugstore cowboys. It was a bunch of horseshit. [Laughs]
So you invented the buzz, more or less.
[Laughs] I don’t really know. It just got to be something to talk about. Really, when it started being a so-called Austin blues scene, it was because of Antone’s and people that used to play there.
Since there wasn’t a blues scene so to speak when you first moved to Austin, what sparked the move from Dallas? Was there a scene there you were a part of?
There was absolutely no blues scene there. You couldn’t even get a gig, and that’s why we came to Austin. If you tried to get a gig in Dallas at that time, they only wanted copy bands. So we cane to Austin, because Austin had the Vulcan Gas Company, and you had guys like the 13th Floor Elevators playing, weird stuff like that going on, and I thought, if they’ll let them do that, they’ll let me do this. And plus, we just loved Austin, because back then, Austin was like the San Francisco of Texas. College town. Beatniks and guys talking about jazz in coffee houses. The rest of Texas wasn’t really liked that when I moved down here. I moved here permanently in ’70. But we were just taking a cue from all the really great blues singers like T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins and all the guys in Houston and Freddie King. We were just trying to play that stuff because it’s what we liked. There was no conscious effort to make records and have a career and all that stuff; we were just — it was totally selfish. I like this, and I’m going to play this, and if you don’t like it, tough stuff.
What was the toughest gig you ever played with the T-Birds?
I remember one time when we had our third album out, we got hired to go out and open for the Doobie Brothers around New York State and the North East. Every night we would come out and they would throw shit at us. Quarters and dimes and fruit. Things like that. That was probably the toughest. And we also got hired one time to play with, what’s that band out of Candada, a trio, with the bass player as the leader?
Rush! Because these guys would like our records, and they would hire us and it was good gigs, but it was opening, so we’d come out in front of their audience and they would go, “Who the hell are these old guys and why are they playing like that?” There were a couple of those things. But for the most part, there wasn’t any hard gigs. We had a great time. Kim and I and Keith and Mike Buck and Fran, we were just having fun. We were on top of the world. Me and Kim were playing the kind of stuff that we really loved. We had a gig and we’d go out there every night and play. Clifford was encouraging, “Go ahead, play that — that’s what you’re supposed to play!” We just weren’t used to hearing that. Most people would say, “Why you want to play that for? Why don’t you play something else? You can’t have a blues band and expect to make a living.” And the record companies wouldn’t even hear about it. But we just kept at it and got lucky, and had a lot of fun. Still do.
Why did you leave the group?
I left the group because … I had a lot of problems with drinking. I was drinking too much. I was burning the candle at both ends, and just got tired of it and didn’t feel like I was contributing anymore. So I just got out to really take care of myself. I said, “Stop the bus, I want to get off of the bus.” That was really it, you know.
Do you play with Kim anymore?
Yeah, we’ll play at Antone’s. If I’m playing and he’s in town, he’ll come and sit in with me, and I’ve actually sat in with the T-Birds a couple of times. So I’d like to think that we’re all ok with all of that. That’s what happened and that’s what we did, and I had to follow my own nose, and so did he.
Speaking of Thunderbirds, I gotta ask you about your classic car and hot-rod collecting hobby. Where did that start?
When I was a little kid in school, I was like the teacher’s pet in art class. I was pretty good at drawing. I like cars because of the way they look, thinking of them as art because they’re cool. I’m not a good mechanic or anything. I love it and I appreciate it, but I always thought everything was art. I appreciate styling and those kinds of things in new cars. Engineering, too. But when I was a kid, I really dug loud pipes and hot-rods and motorcycles and things like that. And I’m still into that. It all sort of goes together with the music, you know what I mean?
Have there been any new cars in the last 20 years that have turned your eye? What do you think of the new Thunderbird? Have you seen one?
Yeah. I haven’t seen one in person. I’ve seen the pictures of them. I don’t know … I like the new Corvettes. I’m an American guy. I like American cars. I like V8s, I like pick-up trucks and ’51 Chevy’s. I like Cadillacs. The rest of them can sort of stuff it. I don’t care.