The 59-year-old Austin musician is a guitarist’s guitarist. His former band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, put blues back on the pop charts in the mid-eighties with the single “Tuff Enuff.” After recording a duet album with his brother, Stevie Ray, who passed away soon afterward, he struck out on his own. Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites (Shout Factory) is Vaughan’s latest solo album.
Since you’ve been in the public eye, you’ve never really deviated from what you do. Did you start out playing different music? Sure. At first we played whatever was on the radio. This was the early sixties, about the time the English stuff started coming out. I didn’t know the difference between blues and country and rock and roll. The country guys in Dallas were playing Jimmy Reed blues songs on TV. It was all kind of the same to me.
You’re known for being one of the more economical players out there. Has that always been true of you? No. I went through a period where I learned how to play fast, and then I figured out that it was just an exercise, like a math problem. If you figure out the trick, then you can do it, right?
Stevie Ray always credited you as one of his major influences, but it’s fascinating how different your styles were. I don’t really think they were that different, except that I would try to play like B. B. King and Freddie King and he tried to play like Jimi Hendrix. I’m four years older, so he watched me learn—I brought home a Hendrix album, and Stevie learned that. If he couldn’t get over with an audience, he’d do Hendrix, and everybody’s mouth would drop, so he sort of incorporated it into his style. He had to try harder ’cause he was a little kid.
You started the T-Birds in 1974 with the singer Kim Wilson. Were you surprised when you hit it big? We never really hit it big. We had a top ten record, and the only difference between a top ten record and no top ten record is that they book you three gigs a day instead of one.
Eventually you quit the band. I was drinking too much. I said, “I gotta get off the bus.” You’ve been riding in a van for fifteen years, you just wanna stop.
Was it hard for you to adapt to being the front man? It was a little scary. When Stevie and I made Family Style [in 1990], our producer, Nile Rodgers, said, “What songs are you gonna sing?” And I said, “I don’t sing,” and he goes, “Stevie’s gonna sing, and I think you should sing.” I was backed into a corner. I started trying to sing. I was nearly forty. I like singing now, but I have to really work at it.
This is your first studio album in nine years. Why the long layoff? I got married and had twin girls. I didn’t want to make any more records until I really felt like it was the thing to do, and sure enough, it came around.
Except for one instrumental, this album is all covers. A friend in Austin said, “If I was your manager, I would make you record every blues song and just put it in the can.” It turned out to be an inspiring idea but also scary. Just because you like a song doesn’t mean you can do it.
I’m guessing you tried quite a few songs to get down to these thirteen. I did. These are great songs. Johnny Ace’s “How Can You Be So Mean”—I’ve never heard anybody else record it. [The Benjamin-Weiss chestnut] “Wheel of Fortune”—Eric Clapton told us to do that. “I’m Leaving It Up to You”—I remembered Dale and Grace’s 1963 version; I thought, “We’ll do the world’s bluesiest version of that.” Ted Taylor’s “I Miss You So”—I got to put a telephone in a song [it’s a duet with Lou Ann Barton that seems to take place over the phone]. Always wanted to do that.
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