Jimmie Vaughan talks the joy of the blues
Jimmie Vaughan is a retroist who's giving technology the benefit of the doubt. He's at a picnic table on a grassy secluded spot near Bee Cave Road, in bucolic West Austin, on an unseasonably cool September morning. He sets down his cup of decaffeinated tea and pulls out his iPhone. The main screen is a black and white photograph of him and his brother, Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died in a helicopter crash 20 years ago. He taps the screen. Up pops his very own app.
A guitar neck appears. Out from the phone's speakers comes the jump jivin' instrumental "Comin' & Goin' "— each note illuminating on the fret board as it's played. It's the only original song by Vaughan, 59, on the summer release "Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites," his first solo album in a nine-year span occupied mostly by raising 6-year-old twin daughters with his second wife, Robin.
The new album is a marvelous collection of mostly '50s cover songs done up in a vintage Gulf Coast style typified by ornamental horns. Vaughan calls it "real Texas." It's the blues as swing, the blues as jazz, the blues as its opposite, joy.
"You can do several things with it," Vaughan says of the TouchChords learn-how-to-play-guitar app by Curious Brain, which came in third place in the Best Artist-based App category at this year's Billboard Music App Awards. Vaughan might know what those things are — he clearly sees the app as a newfangled way to sell his music, in an increasingly fragmented, digital-driven market — but accessing all of those things is a different matter.
"Let's see if I can..." he begins. "I don't know what I just did." A couple more taps of the screen. "It probably wouldn't be good if it came out that I didn't really know how to work it very good."
The opposite is true. The allure of Vaughan is that he's steadfastly old school. It's as if he stepped out of "American Graffiti." His hair is slicked back. On his face are Ray-Ban Wayfarers, a pair probably dating back to before they became trendy the last time. He's wearing pointy leather demi-boots fashionable in the '60s and a National Hot Rod Association letter jacket. And he's driving a '32 Ford Five Window Coupe — one part of a classic car collection that he houses in Smithville, where he will headline the second annual Smithville Music Festival next Saturday.
Vaughan's throwback style permeates "Jimmie Vaughan Plays," achieving what Vaughan calls "that real jukebox sound."
"The album implies that old school, horn-riffy, bluesy, bouncy, sultry feel-good vibe," says Austin trumpeter Ephraim Owens, one-third of the album's horns section, in an e-mail from Europe.
Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace come to mind, alternately dancing to "The Pleasure's All Mine," an Ike Turner-produced R&B ditty with Vaughan's precise, impressionistic guitar playing, and "Just a Little Bit," a funky affair between a Hammond B3 organ and honking brass.
At the heart of the album is life's most precious ingredient. "The theme of the record is," Vaughan begins, in that rare moment that doesn't seem rehearsed from decades of interviews, "what it's like to be a person in and out of love. On Earth. The condition of us."
Those permutations of love are conveyed with the able assistance of Lou Ann Barton. She and Vaughan have collaborated since the '70s, when they were putting Antone's on the map. Their familiarity with each other makes for a compelling man/woman dynamic in "Come Love," a sex-stained, harmonica-driven entreaty, and "I'm Leavin' It Up to You," a couple's last-ditch effort to make it work.
Vaughan's voice is the biggest surprise on the album. It's more than serviceable; it's a thing of beauty. It exhibits a wide range, from gruff and powerful to delicate and heartfelt. And it wasn't until age 40 that Vaughan even started singing. Stevie Ray had to prompt him to do it on their duo album, "Family Style." "I'm glad I did it," Vaughan says, "because it's a more complete feeling of expression."
Consider it a thank-you from Stevie Ray to Jimmie for teaching him the foundation for playing guitar. "Stevie Vaughan would not have become Stevie Ray without Jimmie showing him the way and teaching by example," says Joe Nick Patoski, co-author with Bill Crawford of the Stevie Ray Vaughan book "Caught in the Crossfire." "But to give the younger brother credit, it was Stevie who got Jimmie to sing. Neither would be who they are today without the other."
"Jimmie Vaughan Plays" was inspired by an ambitious suggestion made by Vaughan's friend that he record every blues song in the canon. Vaughan figured a good starting point was the songs he first was captivated by as a teenager growing up in the Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff. Songs by Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, Don Harris and Dewey Terry.
During these formative years, Vaughan started teaching himself (and his brother) how to play guitar. He would mimic songs on the radio in search of his own style. "Freddie King, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters — all these guys influence you," Vaughan says. "And you learn how to play by copying them. It's like jazz. You have a framework, but you improvise and you play what's on your mind right then. That's the fascinating thing about it. It's different every night. You couldn't do it the same if you wanted to."
Playing guitar turned out to be a means to an end for a kid who devoured hot-rod magazines and watched drag races up the street from his house. "I knew within days of trying to play guitar that this is what I wanted to do," Vaughan says. "I thought, 'You know, I could really practice on this thing and get really good, and if I tried real hard, I could get some money and buy a car.'\u2009"
Once he got a set of wheels, Dallas was in the rearview mirror. Vaughan floored it to Austin, where he was one of the first on the music scene. He started out playing frat parties in the '60s. Soon he was packing the Rome Inn with the Thunderbirds. "Jimmie was the cat-daddy of the blues scene in Austin when it came of age in the '70s," Patoski adds. "In a town full of guitar heroes, he demonstrated to one and all how to say more by playing less." In '86, the now Fabulous Thunderbirds became household names, playing their national hit "Tuff Enuff" for a Don't Mess With Texas commercial featuring a classic Cadillac full of litterers.
There's a good chance Vaughan picked that Caddy for the commercial. His crush on cars rivals his love of his Tex-Mex Stratocaster. A '54 Ford is his prized possession. But it's his '61 Cadillac Coupe de Ville "Ironic Twist" that's on display until next summer at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, in Pomona, Calif., as part of an exhibition of musicians' classic cars.
When it comes time to leave the grassy secluded spot, Vaughan gets up and walks 10 feet before realizing he's left his keys on the picnic table: "Can't get far without those."
Smithville Music Festival
Jimmie Vaughan headlines the second year of this fest, which is geared toward families and includes two stages of music, plus food and other activities. Also playing: the Jones Family Singers, T Bird and the Breaks, George Ducas, Woody Russell, Deadman, the Black, Charles Thibodeaux and the Austin Cajun Aces, Blue Valley, LeeAnn Atherton.
When: Gates open at 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Vernon Richards Riverbend Park, off Texas 71 West, Smithville.
Cost: $20; $100 for VIP seating