Cry Tough

Essential bassist Tommy Shannon hangs in there

Tommy Shannon and his wife, Kumi, are raising four elegant horses -- three of them Trakehners, an athletic European breed -- on their Austin ranch. This land, where the Shannons have recently settled, spills out into unspoiled Hill Country. With just a bit more landscaping, it will resemble an American dreamscape, one befitting a humble musician who's overpaid his dues.

"We just got that black mare over there," says Shannon, standing at the corral. "Her name's Deja. She's being bred tomorrow. They're sending sperm down, the vet's gonna squirt it in, and she's gonna have a baby."

Two 11-year-old cats stroll the turf. Poignantly, both were presented to the Shannons as kittens by an old friend who died just yesterday. That friend was Keith Ferguson, the only other Austin blues bassist whose importance rivaled Shannon's.

The interior of the ranch house bears testament to Shannon's allegiance to another dear, departed comrade.

For a decade, Shannon was Stevie Ray Vaughan's musical partner, and gold records and Canadian platinum discs line the ranch house's hallway. "I'm so proud of these," says Shannon of the four Grammys sitting on a piano. The most recent arrived in 1996 -- Best Blues Instrumental for "SRV Shuffle," from a televised tribute concert. Another commemorates the 1984 Montreux Pop Festival. "Seven people booed us, but it sounded like a thousand," Shannon recalls. "We left the stage brokenhearted, crushed." For the live recording of the evening, Blues Explosion, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble copped a Grammy -- karmic payback for the encore they never received.

Encores continue as the SRV legend grows. Vaughan provided Shannon points from album sales and even on merchandising -- an extremely rare arrangement for a "sideman." But despite his legendary past, Tommy Shannon's ego remains modest.

He may indeed be a wonderful bassist, but he knows that his special place in music history boils down at least in part to the fact that he was in the right place at the most right of times. He was the primary bass player not only for Vaughan, but also for Johnny Winter. During two distinct and separate eras, he provided solid support for Texas's two most celebrated rock guitarists. Shannon accompanied both from obscurity into their prime -- and in the case of Vaughan, through his entire recording career.

"I'm glad to be 50 years old," says Shannon, who now plays bass in the soul-rock band Storyville. "I was born [at] the perfect time. I witnessed the birth of rock and roll, I went through the whole revolution of the '60s and I got to participate [in] and live it. There's no way you can explain to kids today how great it was."

It's also hard to explain Shannon's plunge from budding '60s rock stardom with Winter into a hell of addiction and multiple jail sentences, followed by hard labor as a bricklayer. It was only when Shannon teamed up with a then-obscure Austin guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan that lightning struck again, a generation later.

The months before and after an artist's breakthrough -- the elusive transitional period known as making it -- are often his most urgent artistic moments. That Tommy Shannon happened to be there for both guitarists may not be sheer coincidence. Tall and humble -- Lincolnesque, you might say -- Shannon's rise, crash and resurrection seem orchestrated by angels.

Keith Ferguson, the bassist who made his legend with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Tailgators, died the day before this interview. Shannon is deeply shaken. He can't even attend the wake on Sunday -- Storyville is booked on the road.

Shannon donated five bass guitars to Ferguson in recent years. Each bass likely got Ferguson out to a few gigs. Then, like all of Ferguson's instruments, they ended up hanging in Austin hock shops for dope cash.

Ferguson was also a bassist for Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan, playing with both before Shannon. Though Ferguson's career disintegrated as a result of his attachment to heroin, he remained savagely witty and cool, a bittersweet sage among plentiful admirers. Shannon never possessed such charisma, and he bottomed out harder than Ferguson ever did.

Born in Tucson in 1946, Shannon moved to West Texas when he was nine, growing up primarily in Dumas, where there existed no black folk. There wasn't even a wrong side of the tracks.

"[Blacks] simply weren't allowed," Shannon says. "I guess I never gave it much thought back then. I was only l5. If they drove by, the cops would escort them through town. You'd hear some Jimmy Reed and Sam Cooke on the radio. But since there were no blacks in Dumas, I had little exposure to black music."

But Shannon had already gotten a blast of rock and roll in Tucson. He was a little kid when, on the way home from school one day, he heard "Good Golly Miss Molly" on the car radio. "It shot electricity through me," Shannon recalls. "The hairs stood up on me."

Shannon began making a living playing music in high school. Like most bass players, he began on guitar. In his case, it was with a local Dumas band called the Avengers. He moved to Dallas after high school, joining the soul cover band New Breed in 1966. A long-forgotten Dallas club called Fog was the site of the two most significant meetings of Shannon's career; it was where he first encountered Winter, and then, a decade later, where he saw Vaughan. New Breed drummer Uncle John had known Winter since his childhood in Beaumont, and one night "Johnny sat in with the band, and I was blown away," Shannon says. "I thought he was beautiful. He came in with long white hair, incredible stage presence. I'd never seen an albino before."

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