Just as the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album inspired a generation of blues musicians after its release in 1965, the first four records by the Fabulous Thunderbirds also had a tremendous impact that extended well beyond a few of their performances that hit the commercial charts. The band’s tough Texas sound was in large part due to guitarist Jimmie Vaughan’s razor-sharp licks, always saying what needed to be said without getting carried away. Vaughan inspired his younger brother, Stevie Ray, but followed a different path, the one that teaches how to say more playing fewer notes.
Since his tenure with the Thunderbirds ended in 1990, the guitarist has kept busy playing music in his hometown of Austin, Texas, often in a trio with Mike Flanigin on organ and Barry “Frosty” Smith on drums. Released in 2017, the album Live at C-Boys offers plenty of deep grooves from one of the band’s favorite local joints. Prior to that, Vaughan released five solo recordings that featured songs by some of his favorite artists, played by musicians he felt comfortable with.
When it comes to picking songs to record, the guitarist has a simple system. “It comes down to pure lust and greed. I listen to music all the time, lots of different types of music. If I hear something I like, and I think I can do it, and it works for me, then we give it a try. Obviously I can’t do everything that I listen to. Once in a while you hear a song and think to yourself, I could do that one, it would be cool. It’s the same as deciding what kind of food you like. You don’t spend a lot of time gnashing your teeth and worrying about it. Sometimes you try one, and end up deciding maybe I can’t do that one so well. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very much”.
“To me, blues country, jazz, hillbilly, rock & roll, it’s all American music. It is all the same. I have done Hank Williams songs, Lefty Frizzell songs that are country blues. And blues guys used to do country tunes. Little Milton loved the Grand Ole Opry and did country tunes. I don’t care what you are or where you come from. You either like it or you don’t”.
The guitarist digs deep for material, finding gems that have escaped attention, rather than doing yet another cover of some overplayed blues classic. “The fun of it for me is that I am a big fan of the music, and I can’t believe that I get to play it. I have the world’s greatest job! Tell me someone who has a better one. It is like being an artist, getting to paint everyday”.
“You have to spend time searching for your own voice. Ask yourself, what is my style? I learned from B.B. King, Albert King, and Buddy Guy. They all learned from the same artists I did, like T-Bone Walker and others. We all started at the same points. But eventually you end up asking yourself, what is that I do? Then you can’t help it – you keep asking yourself that question. Then you will start getting answers”.
Vaughan’s playing has influenced countless guitar pickers across several generations, with Gary Clark Jr. being the latest high profile artist to testify to the influence Vaughan exerted on him at a young age through live shows he attended, accompanied by his parents. When asked about his signature sound, Vaughan admits that it is hard to describe. “I play what I want to hear. That is the key, how do I express myself. From listening to a lot of music, especially jazz tenor and baritone sax players like Gene Ammons or Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, people that solo frequently, you hear how they are painting a picture. It helps me figure out how to let my feelings come out”.
“Every day changes things. Some days expressing yourself is as easy as waking up and playing what is happening in that day. I can be singing a favorite old song, or something that I have already heard somebody do, and when it comes to the solo part, what am I going to do? That is my time. It is all about expressing yourself. That is the fun of it”.
“I really love the way Gene Ammons approaches things. He always seems to get his point across. He drags you around by the ear, so that you can’t stop listening once you put his music on. In a perfect world, you need to look at that kind of artist for inspiration. I don’t care about all of the noodling or fancy stuff. A lot of guitar players these days are busy doing tricks they learned, running scales and other stuff. As soon as you figure that out, most of the fun is gone. I would rather attempt to express myself in an emotional way on my guitar. It isn’t scientific, but more like grunting. If you spend too much time thinking about it, or dissecting it, the magic is gone. Perhaps we need to be more like grunting humans, keep things simple. You get to these musical intersections, where everyone is waiting for the red light, all this stuff is going on, and the fun is, can you play your way out of the situation. You have to put yourself out there, and be ready to fail”.
As a leading light in a long line of notable Texas blues guitar players, Vaughan is clear on where that tradition started. “We are all lucky that T-Bone Walker was from Texas. He was the first guy to really play blues on an electric guitar, and made it popular. I guess everyone else was just following in his footsteps. But there were also a lot of horn players from Dallas and Houston, and even New Orleans, and points in between. But then everyone left for Los Angeles or Chicago”.
During his tenure with the Thunderbirds, Vaughan used a pick, then later switched to picking with his fingers. “I do both now, depending on what I need, or what I am hearing. When you use your fingers, you get a fatter sound that is tempered. When you play piano, it would be how hard or soft you hit the keys. That creates some subtle touches”.
When asked about what gear he is using these days, Vaughan broke out a racing analogy. “I fool with everything, because it is all in the set-up. You have to tune a race car every day to what you like or however you want it want it to feel. I have a new model of the Stratocaster from the Fender custom shop that I am currently using. It is the best they can do with the frets, the pick-up windings. And I have used plenty of different amplifiers, with the Fender style amp being my favorite. I use the Grammatico Kingsville amps, and I like the old Fender Bassman at times. The Grammatico is a hand-wire, tube version of the Bassman. And I like the Jensen style of speakers. I use a Strymon unit for tremelo and reverb. It is the best thing I have ever seen for that, with multiple settings for each, all in a little pedal. It is very simple – and I guess I am endorsing it now!”
This month brings the latest release from the guitarist, Baby, Please Come Home, on the Last Music Co. label. “This is probably not what the record company wants to hear, but cutting a record can be like backing into a corner and throwing up! You can’t do the same thing over, and over, and over. I like the process to be spontaneous. One day, you say to yourself, I feel it coming. I think I’m going to go make a record. It doesn’t seem to work for me to put out a record every year. There are all different kinds of reasons why you make new songs. Now, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to work on it. You have to work at it very hard”.
“I am on the road constantly. We play the songs I have selected for the album so that they are road-tested before we hit the studio. I use a lot of the same guys that I have used on my other recordings. In fact, Billy Horton on bass, George Rains on drums, and the horn players are on the road with me. When you play with musicians that are that good, you can’t help but accidentally do something right”.
“I love to read, so I am always digging around, looking for answers as to what motivated my favorite musicians. One guy gets your interest, which leads you to read about someone else, and then another, it is endless. We will never be able to hear all of this fabulous music that is out there. One record that hooked me early on was the Blues From Big Bill’s Copacabana, with Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Howlin’ Wolf. It sounds better than ever. Coming up, I am doing a tour with Buddy and Charlie Musselwhite. Did you know that Charlie was standing at the bar the night they recorded that album. Charlie told me he was there. Buddy was only nineteen or twenty at the time, but he was all over that record”.
At a time when many musicians are struggling to earn a living, Vaughan is pleased with the current state of his career.
“From my perspective, things have gotten better because I have a record deal with a company that really likes what I do. So I don’t really know how anyone else is doing because I don’t care. I don’t say that in a nasty way, just that I am really in to what I am doing most of the time. I am not sure what the music business is these days, but I know what I do, so I just do that. In the old days, the record companies were always looking for a hit single. With the Thunderbirds, we wanted to play blues music but the record company would say they weren’t hearing a hit, that maybe our hair wasn’t weird enough. I don’t want to sound like I am complaining, because I had a great time back then.
“Since then, every record deal I have had has been like that, because we just did what we wanted to do. But, until recently, I didn’t realize that you could just ignore everything else. For me, these are the good old days, right now. I get to play all the time and have great gigs. Play, play, play – I play every day whether I have a gig or not. I am very blessed.. But I am still searching, always trying to dig a little deeper”.
Visit Jimmie’s website at: www.jimmievaughan.com.